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Editorial: State waivers let Pa. health care function in the pandemic

TRIBUNE-REVIEW | Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021 5:01 a.m.

A worker shortage in the pandemic economy has been troubling employers for months.

But if you think scaled-back hours at your favorite pizza shop are difficult to handle, try staffing a long-term care home without enough nursing assistants. A short-staffed restaurant can cause irate customers. Not enough nurses for the patients can have much worse consequences.

Regulatory waivers from the state helped keep the medical industry’s wheels spinning, despite the staffing shortages. Those waivers expire Sept. 30.

The waivers in question allowed, for example, out-of-state doctors and nurses to practice in Pennsylvania without licensure issues. In-state medical professionals who had retired or let their licenses lapse as they went into other professions could return to jobs where they were desperately needed without having to jump through bureaucratic hoops.

They also helped those already at work. They made it possible for nurses who were too busy filling shifts to get their continuing education credits to keep going without license hurdles. They allowed nurse practitioners to work in a streamlined fashion with multiple doctors in a health system.

In normal times, a little red tape can be a good thing. These were good rules to have in place in 2019. They make the system accountable. Health care isn’t an area where you want to cut corners.

But in 2020, having enough people to perform the important tasks of testing for illness, treating people in the emergency room, manning the respirators and all of the other tasks the sick and vulnerable needed to be performed — that was the most important thing.

The question now is this: Is it time to let the waivers go, or is it too soon?

The state’s emergency orders came to an end after the May primary, when voters approved an amendment that changed the rules, requiring the Legislature to extend a governor’s order. However, the pandemic didn’t end just because the order did. The delta variant has prompted numbers to rise again, stressing hospitals once more.

The system gets stressed not because of a lack of hospital beds. It’s more about the lack of staff to handle the load, which is what makes the impending expiration problematic. And flu season has barely started.

The Legislature and Gov. Tom Wolf need to do what they are particularly bad at doing. They need to work together to find a smart, efficient solution to the state’s medical staffing problems.

More doctors and nurses and health professionals of all kinds are needed on the floors of hospitals and nursing homes. There are shortages that predate the pandemic and will live long after it is over, so getting together to address these issues is more than just an emergency. It’s a chronic condition, and someone has to manage it.

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