Health care workers not immune to bad economy

SEBRING – Cathy Albritton, Florida Hospital Heartland Division’s director of marketing, likes to point out one statistic when people ask her about the future of the health care industry.

By 2012, approximately 10,000 Americans will turn 65 every day.

“Older adults use more health care services than any other age group, and with the elderly population in the Heartland, a career in health care is the way to go,” she said.

While the economy has affected most industries, its effect on health care jobs appears to have been much less severe, especially in areas with a large number of retirees, such as Highlands County.

But the health care industry has not gone unscathed.

“There has definitely been an economic impact,” said Mary Lou Brunell, executive director of the Florida Center for Nursing in Orlando.

The center projects a tight labor market for RNs and LPNs for a few years as the economy recovers slowly.

As state and federal governments look to trim their budgets, reimbursement rates for Medicare and Medicaid are taking a hit, Brunell said.

Employers who depend on those funds may find themselves having to do more with less.

Take, for example, home health care.

There was a time home health care reimbursed by Medicare paid providers for every visit.

Then providers started getting a flat fee for whatever services were rendered within a 60-day period.

Now, lawmakers are mulling a co-pay for home health care, said Palms Home Care Director of Nursing Peggy Carney.

Should that happen, patients might cut back or simply opt out of seeking medical care at home, she said, although Palms Home Care — which has an army of professionals from nurses to occupational therapists — has been steadily growing since it opened.

This is not to say the jobs are not out there.

Florida Hospital had 25 vacancies listed on its website Thursday.

“We are continually looking for highly trained and educated health-care professionals. Currently we are searching for critical care nurses, medical technologist, CNAs and more,” the hospital’s director of human resources, Michelle Myers, said.

But health care professionals are being forced to work more hours to supplement their family income because their spouses may have lost jobs, be forced to come out of retirement or delay their retirement, Brunell said.

When the economy soured in 2008, the nursing workforce actually expanded as caregivers came out of retirement or took on extra shifts.

The shaky economy also means that new graduates may find it’s taking a little longer than before to find a job, and employers have become more selective about new recruits, said Becky Sroda, South Florida Community College’s dean of allied health. The school offers five allied health-related programs.

“Eventually they all find jobs,” she said. “I would say ‘yes, this is a good field to be in’ because people still get sick” and need medical attention.

One reason health-care workers don’t feel the pinch that much in a bad economy is because of a shortage of professionals, especially nurses.

Ironically, the recession has “delayed the emergence of a severe nursing shortage,” as nurses work extra hours.

However, when key provisions of health-care reform expanding access to care are implemented in 2014, demand for RNs will increase rapidly, a shortage that might grow tenfold by 2025, the center adds.

Experts blame the shortage on supply and demand.

Schools offering health-care education can’t accommodate the number of students who apply, either due to lack of clinical space or a shortage of teachers.

SFCC, for example, has to turn away 75 percent of the 100 students who routinely apply to its RN program every year, Sroda said.

Then again, not everyone with a medical degree gets what they were hoping to get in the real world because of changing job prospects.

Employers, for instance, now prefer RNs over LPNs because RNs typically go through a two-year training in an associate’s degree program, Sroda said. LPNs take a year to graduate and their training is not as broad.

“The landscape is changing,” she said.


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