American Hospital Association members in Washington last week for the group's 34th annual meeting were looking for money and manpower, both of which are in short supply, if you ask the AHA.
As hospital officials visited Capitol Hill pleading for relief from Medicare cuts they said are pitting physicians against hospitals, the AHA's members also learned details of a nationwide workforce shortage and how their Chicago-based trade association thinks they should address it.
The AHA's annual meeting, which drew some 2,200 people to the Hilton Washington and Towers last week, highlighted the critical role hospitals play in disaster readiness at a time when declining federal reimbursement imperils their ability to treat subsidized patients and act as front-line responders to a terrorist attack.
"My sense is that (White House officials) are a long way from really understanding ground-level what's going on day to day in hospitals right now," said Geoffrey Cole, president and chief executive officer of 200-bed Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass., and chairman of the Massachusetts Hospital Association. "These are people of good will who aren't yet seeing what we're seeing."
Cole was one of several Massachusetts healthcare officials who visited last week with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to make their case for congressional action to rein in Medicare cuts and put a stop to the Bush administration's policy of offsetting Medicare increases with cuts elsewhere in the program (See related story, p. 25). In Massachusetts, according to Cole, roughly 60% of hospitals operate in the red.
Kerry told the MHA members gathered on Capitol Hill about "the absurdity of (Congress') year-to-year, halfhearted, restrained response to a crisis we created and you're suffering through" but also let them know that any budgetary fix would probably be less than they wanted.
AHA members attending a four-hour federal relations forum that featured former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge cheered calls for adding a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare. Back on Capitol Hill, however, those cheers were muted by political realities.
"The House of Representatives does not have the political will to add a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare this year," Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) told Modern Healthcare.
When they weren't lobbying for Medicare and Medicaid relief, officials attending last week's meeting saw for the first time a report on the healthcare workforce shortage prepared by an AHA commission. A shortage of all types of healthcare workers "is likely to become dramatically worse if we don't take action today," said Gary Mecklenburg, president and chief executive officer of Northwestern Memorial HealthCare in Chicago and the AHA's immediate past chairman.
Mecklenburg presented the 94-page report last week to a packed auditorium.
The national nurse vacancy rate was 13% last fall, and 82% of hospitals reported that it had become more difficult to recruit nurses since 1999, according to the report.
The AHA's 27-member Workforce Commission, chaired by Mecklenburg, developed the report, which includes data from AHA research and interviews with hospital officials, as well as from outside organizations and government agencies.
The workforce shortage involves a 71% vacancy rate among radiology and nuclear imaging specialists, a 46% vacancy rate among pharmacists, and a 27% vacancy rate among laboratory and medical technologists, according to the report.
To resolve the shortage the report suggested increasing the diversity of healthcare workers, fostering more meaningful work environments, developing partnerships with school systems to increase the pool of workers, and collaborating with other hospitals.
Having already adopted some of these recommendations, five-hospital Baptist Health Care in Pensacola, Fla., has seen its turnover rate drop 50% since 1996, said Al Stubblefield, Baptist's president and CEO, who sat on the panel that helped present the report.