April 24, 2009 — Despite a number of different approaches, Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital is still struggling to hire enough permanent full time nurses and other professionals, hospital Chief Executive Officer Gregory Calliste told the Senate Health Committee Friday.
"We continue to experience shortages of professional staff especially in the areas of registered nurses, lab and x-ray technologists, pharmacists, respiratory therapist, certified nurse anesthetist and some physician specialists, including neurosurgery, neonatology, pulmonary and vascular surgery," Calliste said. "This makes us dependent on temporary staff, which is much more expensive. For example, our average local registered nurse's salary is about $60,000 while we have to pay the nursing agencies about $120,000 per nurse; the average local physician salary is about $105,000 while the (temporary contract workers) get about $1,400 per day; the local nurse anesthetist gets about $90,000 while the (temporary contract workers) get about $225,000."
Even though hiring contract workers costs more than hiring full time staff, local salaries that are lower than the U.S. mainland make recruiting difficult, he said.
"Are there any specific plans or anything you are doing right now to alleviate traveling nurses, which would then of course reduce your operating costs? Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone asked.
"A lot of what we are doing is to see how we can train our local folks for these positions," Calliste said. "That would be the long-term solution. But the short-term solution unfortunately is traveling nurses."
Because nurses' salaries are higher in the Virgin Islands than in nearby Puerto Rico, the St. Croix hospital began an effort to recruit Puerto Rican nurses last year, he said, but the program has had mixed results so far. One major stumbling block to that route is Puerto Rico uses a different set of nursing certifications than the one used both on the U.S. mainland and the Virgin Islands.
Under the requirements set up by the V.I. Board of Nurse Licensure, nurses with Puerto Rican or other certification have to take and pass certification exams by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing within a year of starting work. Having to move, find a residence, start working and then study and pass the exam in a relatively short time frame has discouraged a number of applicants from Puerto Rico, he said.
"We did appeal to the Board of Nurse Licensure to increase it to two years, but there has been no word on that yet," he said.
There were no votes cast at the oversight hearing in Frederiksted. The committee also discussed the hospital's budget stresses, its expansion of telemedicine and the use of teleconferencing, plans to expand kidney care and other issues.
At the behest of committee chairman Sen. Patrick Simeon Sprauve, for the first time in the V.I. Legislature testimony, budget information, letters and other voluminous committee documents were distributed to the senators and media primarily on CDs, eliminating the need for roughly 20 notebooks containing over a hundred pages of printed paper each.
In addition to Sprauve and Malone, present were Sens. Craig Barshinger, Louis Patrick Hill, Nereida "Nellie" O'Reilly and Sammuel Sanes.
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