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Mills unveils a plan to get more Mainers to work and stay in health care jobs amid labor shortage

Virus Outbreak US Surge
Robert F. Bukaty
FILE - In this Dec. 8, 2020, file photo, a health care worker wears personal protective equipment as she speaks to a patient at a mobile testing location for COVID-19 in Auburn, Maine. Doctors and nurses around the U.S. are becoming exhausted and demoralized as they struggle to cope with a record-breaking surge of COVID-19 patients that is swamping hospitals and prompting governors to clamp back down to contain the virus.

Gov. Janet Mills on Monday outlined her administration's plans to boost employee recruitment and retention in health care fields using more than $14 million in federal funds. The initiative comes at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating a staffing crisis within the industry.

Flanked by members of her Cabinet and health care industry representatives, Gov. Mills said the money will be used to provide scholarships and loan relief to students pursuing careers in nursing or as doctors and behavioral health professionals. Maine also plans to use part of the COVID stimulus dollars to promote health care professions through a public service and social media campaign.

"With these initiatives, we want to make it easier and more affordable for people -- especially young people — to pursue careers in health care, move up the career ladder into higher paying jobs, understanding that these jobs provide a rewarding opportunity to do life-saving work and make a good wage with benefits at the same time," Mills said.

The Mills administration is also earmarking $8.5 million to help current health care workers advance in their careers by eliminating out-of-pocket costs for training and certification programs.

Some in the industry have raised concerns that the staffing crisis could be exacerbated by this Friday's deadline — set by the Mills administration — for all health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19. A few hospitals have already cut back services and EMS providers in some communities have warned that emergency responses could be delayed if more first responders quit or are fired because they are unvaccinated.

But during Monday's event in Augusta, Maine General Health's president and CEO, Chuck Hayes, said the more than $14 million will help with long-term recruitment and retention.

"It's been all-hands-on-deck for 19 months. We are in need of more hands. That's why the resources that the governor is talking about today are so important," Hayes said.

Administration officials say they are working closely with health care providers to address any vacancies caused by the vaccination mandate.