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The latest news about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 in Montana.

Billings Clinic hires foreign nurses amid staff shortage

Nurse in a mask sitting, looking tired.

Hospital staff have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic for nearly two years now. Health care workers are stretched thin, dealing with COVID patients and keeping up with patients with other needs. Hospitals across the country, including Montana, have had to look far and wide to find enough workers.

Nick Ehli reported for Kaiser Health News that Billings Clinic has hired two dozen nurses from other countries to fill the staffing void. MTPR's Freddy Monares spoke with Ehli about his reporting.

Freddy Monares Where are these nurses coming from and when did they get here?

Nick Ehli Well, so they're coming really from countries all over the world. So I would have been at Billings Clinic in early December. They had three of the nurses that had arrived, with several more waiting. They had roughly 20 more that they were expecting. They're all a little bit tied up on their final visa interviews, so that's what the holdup is.

Freddy Monares Yeah. Can you take us through the process on how nurses get approved to work in the country?

Nick Ehli Basically, these nurses are recruited, or they could go to a recruiting agency. There's dozens and dozens of these firms that help foreign-born nurses that are hoping to come to the United States. They put them through a variety of their immigration paperwork. They help them with, there's testing that they've got to go through. There is a federally approved company. There's only one of these that's approved by the federal government that does testing then of these nurses or other medical workers, for that matter, to make certain that they're qualified to come to the U.S..

Freddy Monares Your reporting looked at nurses at Billings Clinics specifically. Why has Billings Clinic had to look so far to find nurses?

Nick Ehli So this summer, I guess it was this September when when Billings and Yellowstone County was really at the kind of the epicenter of cases, really having a tough time of it. The nursing shortage was obvious that that was a problem, so I had asked about that. And it struck me as this was a creative way that they were, they were looking to help fill that need.

Freddy Monares Are there other hospitals in the state that are hiring nurses from outside the country to fill their needs?

Nick Ehli Not that I found. I'm guessing that that's the case, but this is happening all over the country where hospitals are turning to this. One of the companies I talked to, one of the placement agencies, said that they had 4,000 requests for these nurses. They're just one agency. There's dozens and dozens of these. So I'm guessing that it's also happening in Montana's other hospitals.

Freddy Monares How much are these nurses getting paid?

Nick Ehli So at Billings Clinic, I can speak to that, they're being paid the same as another nurse here with equivalent experience. They're paying, then, an extra fee to the placement company for their recruiting, the training, all those things that take place. For Billings Clinic, that's still quite a bit cheaper than hiring traveling nurses that, you know, at some point they were paying $200 an hour for these nurses.

Freddy Monares We've tapped another source for nurses. Does that mean workforce shortages in hospitals are taken care of now?

Nick Ehli Oh, absolutely not. Nursing associations around the country are calling this a national emergency, and there's a, I'm sure, a variety of reasons for that. I've heard from nurses since this story published that the issue is that nurses aren't paid enough. Besides the, you know, the really horrific working conditions in a pandemic that are causing this to happen, there have been a really a large uptick in students applying to nursing schools, and that's a positive. But that's a ways away. They aren't fulfilling that pipeline need right now.

Freddy Monares That was Nicky Ehli talking about his reporting for Kaiser Health News on foreign-born nurses coming to America to help hospitals during the pandemic. Nick, thanks for sharing your reporting with us.

Nick Ehli You bet. Thanks, Freddie.

Freddy Monares was a reporter and Morning Edition host at Montana Public Radio.
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