Senate panel launches effort to shore up health workforce and ease crippling shortages

A key Senate panel is launching a major effort to shore up the healthcare workforce after lingering shortages have roiled the industry. 

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing Thursday on addressing the crisis. Some of the policy solutions include expanding the Graduate Medical Education program and growing teaching health centers. 

“A shortage of healthcare personnel was a problem before the pandemic and now it has gotten worse,” said HELP Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. “Health care jobs have gotten more challenging and, in some cases, more dangerous.”

Sanders said Thursday that in the next decade there will be a shortage of more than 120,000 doctors as well as a massive need for 450,000 nurses within the next two years. The staffing shortage has been particularly acute among nurses, as hospitals have turned to pricey contract labor to shore up capacity.

Lawmakers detailed where the panel could go to combat the problem. 

Ranking Member Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, said that one of the biggest potential barriers could be the education requirements for nursing educators, which his home state is looking into. 

“States have to ask—what does that student need to know to effectively care for patients and whom can they learn it from?” he said during the hearing. “That will be a way to remove a real choke point in terms of educating these nurses.”

Sanders added that the panel could look into expanding residency slots for the GME program and “increase student loan debt forgiveness and scholarships provided” under the National Health Services Corps.

There are some potential must-pass vehicles for the panel to include reforms, chief among them extending mandatory funding for the National Health Service Corps and the Teaching Health Centers GME program. 

Another program set to expire in 2023 is the Children’s Hospital GME program that helps to train pediatricians and other pediatric specialties.

“It is important that funding for these programs is extended on time, in a bipartisan fashion, with the appropriate spending offsets,” Cassidy said.