HARRISBURG, Pa. — At the beginning of the pandemic, the Wolf Administration established COVID-19 waivers to help hospitals and nursing homes respond to the coronavirus. Over the last 19 months, the waivers helped to put more boots on the ground in health care settings, expanded who can administer vaccines and approved the use of telemedicine—but, they expire soon.
FOX43 Reveals which waivers might have a good chance at staying in place as health care providers fight to make them permanent.
Throughout the pandemic, we’ve heard about the burnout from healthcare workers. Thousands of nurses have left their jobs at a time when demand for care is only increasing, pushing an already overworked staff to the brink.
“We have seen double the amount of nurses leave the profession in 2020. That’s just outrageous, but they’re tired. They’re worn out,” said Betsy Snook, CEO of the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association (PSNA).
Snook, who is also a registered nurse, said many healthcare workers have been relying on COVID-19 waivers. They relaxed regulations and helped ease staffing shortages by allowing out-of-state practitioners to treat Pennsylvanians. FOX43 Reveals that the number of temporary licenses issued for medical doctors skyrocketed in the Commonwealth by 883 percent in 2020.
“If we didn’t have some of our friends coming over from New Jersey and Delaware, those folks that are close to us, we may not have gotten all the shots in the arms that we would have liked to have,” Snook added.
A temporary medical doctor license may be issued in the Commonwealth to:
• An applicant who holds the equivalent of a license without restriction granted by the licensing authority of another state, territory or possession of the United States, or another country;
• Permit the teaching and demonstration of medical and surgical techniques and to facilitate the presentation of medical and surgical seminars and demonstrations in this Commonwealth;
• Permit participation in the administration of a medical or surgical procedure to a specified patient to enable persons uniquely qualified to perform a new and difficult medical or surgical procedure and to administer that procedure in this Commonwealth if it is necessary for the well-being of a specified patient;
• Permit the practice of medicine and surgery at a camp or resort and to permit the practice for no more than a 3-month period;
• The short-term replacement of a Doctor of Medicine employed by the Federal government in a National Health Service Corps Clinic, under Project U.S.A. arrangements. Project U.S.A. is a program developed by the American Medical Association and the Federal government through which the former provides doctor replacements to the latter as short-term replacements of Doctor of Medicine who are employed by the Federal government to provide medical services in areas where there is a critical medical manpower shortage; and
• Someone for any purpose deemed appropriate by the board, on a case by case basis.
The COVID-19 waivers are set to expire in March 2022 after lawmakers voted unanimously for a six-month extension. Health care providers worry this only delays the inevitable and they want to see some of the more than 100 waivers become permanent.
“Speaking from the Pennsylvania Health Care Association membership, every single one of our members—be it a nursing home, personal care home, assisted living community—relied on waivers like these,” said Zach Shamberg, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association (PHCA).
Rachel Yonkunas: Would there have been a pretty big impact had these waivers expired in September?
Zach Shamberg: Well, for long-term care, we’re in the midst of the greatest workforce shortage that we have ever experienced so these waivers were imperative for hundreds of nursing homes, for hundreds of personal care homes and assisted living communities, to ensure that the care could continue to be provided on a daily basis.
For the past six months, the Joint State Government Commission has been studying the impact of the waivers and which should stay in place. Their newly released report found the waivers had little impact on employment levels in health care.
“The consensus among the responding organizations was that the waivers and suspensions of certain rules were helpful for ensuring that regulated professionals were able to obtain or maintain their licensure while remaining compliant with both the requirements of their profession and COVID-19 safety protocols. The impact on employment, however, is negligible,” read the report.
The Commission acknowledged there has been a tumultuous labor market since 2020 and said in the report that “parsing the impact of a specific waiver or even all of the waivers collectively from broader trends in the economy is not feasible.”
However, the Commission is still recommending lawmakers reform regulations or make several waivers permanent. FOX43 Reveals those waivers focus on telemedicine, continuing education, virtual board meetings, prescription amounts, pharmacists’ authority to immunize, clarifying dentists’ scope of practice and reducing barriers to practice in the Commonwealth for out-of-state licenses.
Ultimately, it’s up to the General Assembly and health care providers have a lot of questions, especially about the backlog of paperwork that industry leaders expect when the waivers expire.
“On March 31, 2022, when these waivers are expiring, the State Board of Nursing is going to have an influx of these collaborative agreements at a time when the State Board of Nursing is already stretched pretty thin,” said Noah Logan, PSNA’s Government Relations Specialist. “We’re getting a few delays with licenses. I can’t imagine what the delays would do for patients and for our healthcare system in general.”
Some waivers were not extended and have expired, including a waiver that allowed retired practitioners to re-enter the field more easily and without paying reactivation fees.
You can visit the Pennsylvania Department of State’s website to read more about all the waivers that are in place until March 2022 and click here to view the Joint State Government Commission’s full report on the regulatory waivers.
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