GMH scaling down travel nurse staffing; negotiating for lower rates

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Guam Memorial Hospital (PNC file photo)

The Guam Memorial Hospital is scaling down its travel nurse staffing as the island’s COVID-19 situation improves.

GMH administrator Lillian Perez-Posadas said they used to have about 70 nurses during the height of the COVID pandemic on island.

“We now have scaled down. We’re down to 35 nurses, with the ER, Chemo, and ICU because we are not … we don’t think we’re in a crisis situation anymore,” Perez-Posadas said during Wednesday night’s GMH board of trustees meeting.

Because GMH is scaling down on travel nurses, it is now negotiating with the travel nurses’ recruiting firms for a lower rate.

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“We’re no longer in a fight. So we’re hoping that they accept our request to negotiate for lower rates,” Perez-Posadas.

She added that GMH is no longer reaching out to the other travel nurse staffing agencies as GMH scales down on its travel nurse staffing.

Yuka Hechanova, the acting CFO of the hospital, said GMH has so far already paid $3.8 million for the travel nurses and the hospital still has to be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“They’re billing us weekly but we’re holding off payments for invoices until FEMA sends reimbursements,” Hechanova said.

She added that GMH has only $2.1 million in the bank without the FEMA money.

During the height of the pandemic, travel nurses were recruited off-island at exorbitant rates. They became a major cost factor for GMH and contributed to the hospital’s deteriorating financial situation.

Previously, GMH only had about 8 to 10 travel nurses on any given month. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, GMH reached a high of 70 at one point in time.

GMH only budgeted $900,000 to a million dollars every year for travel nurses but it already spent about three and a half million dollars for the period that ended in November 2020.

According to GMH, the travel nurse invoices from the off-island firms are estimated at about $500,000 to $600,000 a week.

Last September, as the second wave of the coronavirus was hitting Guam, 43 travel nurses arrived on Guam contracted through a hiring agency called NuWest based in the continental U.S.

The contract had GMH paying up to $145 per hour, per nurse. GMH, however, said that the $145 per hour is just the cap that they set with the hiring agency and that they pay less. Also, part of the cost can be subsidized by the federal government and GMH has already applied with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In addition, GMH said not all that money goes to nurses because a significant amount is paid to the hiring agency, which takes a portion for administrative costs, travel fees, and lodging for the nurses, among other expenses, then pays nurses according to their specialty.

However, some travel nurses have complained that their hiring agency never provided subsidized housing for them. In addition, many of the travel nurses were transported to Guam not by the hiring agencies, but by United Airlines, which provided the service for free.

Perez-Posadas had said that the high number of travel nurses currently employed by the hospital is only a temporary measure as Guam continues to deal with COVID-19.

Perez-Posadas said the goal is to lessen the hospital’s dependence on these travel nurses and eventually phase them out.

She added that the priority is to always train and employ local nurses and upgrade their salaries so that they will continue to stay at GMH.

In the meantime, the board also approved a resolution approving an increase in the incentive pay for registered nurses and licensed practical nurses from 16 percent to 20 percent.

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