Lawmakers, AHA urge White House to investigate nurse staffing agencies' price hikes

Calls are mounting among industry and legislators for a federal investigation into potential price gouging by nurse staffing agencies that have found their services in high demand throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tuesday, a bipartisan group of almost 200 lawmakers penned a letter to White House COVID-19 Response Team Coordinator Jeffrey Zients asking the official “to enlist one or more” federal agencies to open an investigation into potential anti-competitive activity or violation of consumer protection laws.

The group, headed by Representatives Peter Welch, D-Vermont, and Morgan Griffith, R-Virginia, said it has heard of agencies charging “two, three or more” times their pandemic rates while pocketing 40% or more of what hospitals are paying out.  

“We have heard the amounts charged to hospitals rose precipitously as the newest wave of the COVID-19 crisis swept the nation and the agencies seemingly seized the opportunity to increase their bottom line,” the lawmakers wrote. “Hospitals have no choice but to pay these exorbitant rates because of the dire workforce needs facing hospitals around the country.”

Tuesday’s letter comes roughly two months after four senators and congress members made a similar request of the White House’s pandemic lead.

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In that letter, Senator Mark Kelly, D-Arizona, Senator Bill Cassidy, M.D., R-Louisiana, Representative Doris Matsui, D-California, and Representative David McKinley, R-West Virginia, pushed for federal agencies to look into nurse staffing agencies’ ownership structures and the community impact of increased prices alongside potential price gouging.

“This model is unsustainable for many health systems,” the four wrote in November. “As the pandemic continues and we enter flu season, we request you enlist one or more of the federal agencies with competition and consumer protection authority to investigate this conduct.”

Lawmakers' latest call to action landed alongside a renewed push for investigative action out of the American Hospital Association (AHA), which had raised similar concerns to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as far back as February 2021.

In a Tuesday morning press call, AHA President and CEO Rick Pollack cited the same pricing behaviors highlighted by the legislators and noted that his organization has yet to hear back from the FTC on its early 2021 request.

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Melinda Hatton, general counsel to the AHA, added that the organization believes it has seen some agencies make similar rate adjustments “in lock-step” throughout the nation. She also said that certain staffing agencies have demonstrated “some proclivity for anticompetitive behavior” and referenced ongoing Department of Justice lawsuits reviewing no-poach agreements allegedly intended to suppress workers’ wages.

“There were a number of investigations by the administration on price gouging throughout the pandemic on various supplies,” she said Tuesday morning. “I think you could argue this is even a more important resource than some of the areas they investigated and certainly one that’s ripe for some kind of federal scrutiny.”

Hatton declined to mention any of the potentially offending staffing agencies by name.