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Thousands of Ohioans waiting for home health care services amid staffing shortages

Western Reserve Area Agency on Aging is working to recruit nurses to meet the increased need.
Published: Nov. 8, 2021 at 2:31 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 8, 2021 at 10:47 PM EST
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - Staffing for home health aides is in critical condition right now — and both the patients and the staff are paying the price.

“I always say, you don’t come to work with your heart on your sleeve. You come to work with your heart in your hands because that’s what we do, we lay hands. My colleagues are tired,” said Erica McBee, a home health nurse with the Western Reserve Area Agency on Aging.

She’s spent her entire career dedicated to serving others, but she says it’s not just the patients who need help now. It’s also her and her fellow nurses.

“I’m terrified for my colleagues,” she said. “Burnout is massive.”

McBee and colleagues at WRAAA are working at full throttle to staff cases, but there aren’t enough of them to manage the increased need for at-home care.

“If someone needs 20 hours of care but we can only offer six, what are they doing for the other 14? You can only imagine falls, lack of food, malnutrition. You can only imagine, misuse and mismanagement of medications,” said McBee.

“Statewide, they’ve indicated that there is about 2,000 individuals who are presently waiting for home health care services,” said Craig Thomas, Senior Director of Clinic Services at WRAAA.

He says the pandemic wasn’t the catalyst in this crisis in caregivers but more like a tipping point.

Trouble had been brewing for five years.

“We started seeing people leaving the profession for any number of reasons,” he said. “And that’s just had a ripple effect across every aspect of home health care.”

Stacy Turner, WRAAA’s director of human resources, says not-for-profits like theirs are competing with major hospitals, nursing homes, places equally desperate for help.

She says travelling nurses are getting paid upwards of $100 per hour, plus expenses.

Since they have limitations on pay they compete for talent by selling the better work-life balance they can offer — something so many people have had a reckoning about during the pandemic.

“No nights, no weekends, no holidays,” she said.

With worker burnout rate so high of late, Turner says it’s her go-to pitch right now.

“We pride ourselves on trying not to overwork our staff,” said Turner.

But protecting their staff from an overwhelming caseload has been a tall order because of the understaffing and the job market.

“For me it’s scary,” said McBee. “It’s not just hard, it’s scary.”

She says those sitting on the sidelines need to know that coming to work as a home healthcare nurse would ultimately save the life of someone else.

“What if it were you? What type of care would you want? So why don’t you come and learn and provide that type of care for other people?” she said.

McBee says they’re still racing against time, and she urges people to stop being idle and come get trained to contribute to this critical need.

“The worst-case scenario is that you’re just not going to have home health care workers to go into people’s homes,” said Thomas. “We’re seeing that across the state.”

He says keeping folks safe and cared for at home, where they prefer to be, instead of a facility, is important.

“We’re backed up by the state because it’s much cheaper for us to support people to stay in their homes,” he said.

Turner says asking healthcare workers, donning heavy PPE, to go into people’s homes right now is a hard sell. But she says there’s no virtual substitute for the work they do.

“It’s just critical. To lay eyes to see their environment, to see that they’re safe, they have food, their medications are there all the things that our care managers do,” Turner said.

To bridge the gap while they’re understaffed, they’re trying to meet immediate needs with creative and innovative solutions, according June Taylor, chief of people, performance and quality initiatives.

They’ve addressed food insecurity of half a million people by delivering boxed and hot meals door to door for months.

They’ve also dropped off hygiene, safety, and home weatherproofing kits in response to seniors concerns over lack of visits from home healthcare aides.

Taylor says it’s been the most difficult time they’ve seen people have, especially for those seniors who are also assisting grandchildren.

There are “individuals... challenged with their own health on a daily basis,” she said. “But yet, they’re being forced to provide food, clothing and supervise education.”

To help fill the deficit in staffing, they’re even pitching positions to family members of patients to serve as home health caregivers instead of employees, provided they go through the training and meet all the state criteria to be their provider.

“It’s a state-wide initiative that’s been going on that has been spurred more in to action due to this shortage,” Thomas said.

There are increases in state funding for home health care providers on the horizon and additional federal funding coming into the programs — things Thomas hopes will bring new people in to the field.

In terms of a trend, he says they’re stable for now, but stable in a deficit.

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