Much of the national conversation regarding the healthcare workforce since the passage of the Affordable Care Act has focused on addressing nursing shortages or the increased need for primary-care physicians. While these are very real issues, they are, figuratively speaking, just the tip of the iceberg.
Working together, employers and healthcare workers need to think creatively about the new roles caregivers can play in addressing the cost drivers of chronic illness and long-term care. Community-based healthcare workers can improve the quality of care for chronically ill patients in their homes and prevent costly hospital readmissions. Coordinated home care services can ensure seniors and people with disabilities the choice to live at home and save families and taxpayers the cost of institutionalized care.
While some members of Congress and opponents of the healthcare law may be focused on delaying or destroying it, the real work of delivering its benefits to patients is taking place every day in our hospitals, health centers and nursing homes, and Americans are counting on us to continually improve the quality of care we provide.
Together, we need to look for opportunities that maximize the skills of our current workforce, invest in education and training for new workers, and begin to address the “diversity gap” that is holding us back in making real headway in tackling healthcare disparities. And at a time when millions of Americans are unemployed or underemployed, we need to ensure that every healthcare job is a good job that can sustain a family.
Hospitals and long-term-care facilities added tens of thousands of jobs since the beginning of the year, and yet nearly one in three home-care workers doesn't have health insurance and the majority work for poverty wages. These working conditions result in skyrocketing turnover rates and an opportunity to grow a new healthcare career for an entry-level worker perishes in the process. We cannot lose sight of the fact that our healthcare system is only as strong as our entire healthcare workforce.
Americans, old or young, rich or poor, deserve the highest quality of care every day, at every level. If we are going to transform our healthcare system to deliver better care to patients while controlling healthcare costs, we need to consider the readiness of the entire patient-care team: from dietary aides and home-care workers, to lab techs, nurses and doctors.
Now is the time to move the conversation from local issues of supply and demand to a national dialogue with employers, workers, universities and community colleges, and leading experts in the field.
Mary Kay Henry is president of the Service Employees International Union.