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How A Lewiston Hospital Group Is Trying To Offset The Nursing Shortage

Maine College of Health Professions in Lewiston
Nursing students at the Maine College of Health Professions in Lewiston.

Maine hospitals are casting a wide net to attract nurses to fill a critical shortfall, with some offering up to a $10,000 signing bonus and others hiring from outside the state or country.

Lewiston-based Central Maine Healthcare is offering modest signing bonuses and recruiting outside Maine to fill the more than 50 registered nursing positions open now. But it also is working closer to home. The three-hospital group, which currently employs 754 nurses, is trying to relieve the ongoing shortfall of nurses by setting up programs aimed at retaining its staff.

“We have creative programs like robust tuition reimbursement to help nurses pay down their student debt,” said Mary-Anne Ponti, vice president of nursing at Central Maine Healthcare. “We’ll contribute to support retention.”

Central Maine Healthcare is the parent organization of Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, Rumford Hospital and Bridgton Hospital.

Some 131 RN take advantage of the tuition reimbursement program. Their average student debt is $27,800.

Retirees add to shortage

Maine’s current shortage of 600 RNs is expected to balloon to a 3,200 nurse shortfall by 2025, according to Maine’s Nursing Workforce, which combines information from several state nursing organizations.

There were 23,371 RNs in Maine as of December 2015, the latest figure available. More than half of them are aged 50 years or older, which is another pressure on the lean ranks of nurses as they prepare to retire.

And 30 percent are aged 55 to 64, according to The Center for Health Affairs in Cleveland, Ohio.

Ponti, who has been in the healthcare business since 1980, said there also was a nursing shortage then, but today’s shortage feels different.

“In the 1980s, not as many nurses were looking to retire,” she said. “And when the recession hit in 2000, then couldn’t retire.” That also was true during the most recent recession that started in late 2007.

The shortfall of new nurses plus those ready to retire have hospitals desperate to find new sources of nurses to care for Maine’s aging population.

“Maine’s aging population, which includes nurses, is the primary driver,” said Michele Talka, vice president of human resources at Central Maine Healthcare.

“Younger nurses are not coming into the state in adequate numbers,” she said. “And those who train at schools here are going elsewhere after graduation.”

Reaching out

The hospital group plans to soon start a marketing campaign and hold a career fair in Ohio, which has a surplus of nurses. Other hospitals are reaching out even further. Nearby St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center last year hired nurses from the Philippines.

But a major approach for Central Maine Healthcare is to create an environment where nurses want to stay, said Talka.

“We’re trying to attract people who want a career here,” she said.

That’s a challenge when the turnover rate, also known as churn, is 35 percent for first year a nurse works at a Central Maine Healthcare hospital. The young nurses move away or chase higher pay at other Maine hospitals, she said. In the second and third years, the churn rate declines to 17 percent, but that’s still higher than the 13 percent in most other professions.

The loss and replacement of a nurse can range from one to three times the salary of the person who left, including recruitment, training and lost productivity, Talka said.

Tending to current staff

To help retain staff, Central Maine Healthcare is conducting two hours of training for its 3,500 workers from all departments over the next three months.

“We’ll refresh the culture so people can reconnect to why they are in healthcare,” she said. “A lot of times people will work with intangibles even if they could make more across the street.”

The hospital system, which navigated through a major turnaround in the past three years after losing staff, bleeding profits and reorganizing, also has created well-defined pay scales linked to a nurse’s level of experience. The pay scales are the same in the Lewiston, Rumford and Bridgton hospitals.

It also recently recast its career advancement program. The career program lets clinical nurses advance through five levels of practice: novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient and expert.

Ponti said the program, which is conducted at other hospitals throughout the country, helps retain nurses because they can see a career path.

Central Maine Healthcare also has access to nurses through the nonprofit nursing school it owns, the Maine College of Health Professions in Lewiston.

The school has 200 students, about 150 of them nursing students. It operates independently from the hospital system, though its students often opt to work for the hospital.

“We benefit mightily from our relationship with the hospital, most directly in our students’ access to real-time, real-life decision-making in a hospital system,” said Monika Bissell, president of the college.

This story appears through a media sharing agreement with Bangor Daily News.