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Health

Advocates continue to call for more funding for upstate hospitals as budget negotiations continue

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As budget talks drag out in Albany, advocates for health care continue pressing lawmakers to make sure there is money for upstate hospitals. But even with a decline in COVID numbers, the staffing problems in hospitals persist.

“The cost of labor and the fact we can’t find people continues to be a problem,” said Gary Fitzgerald, CEO of Iroquois Healthcare Alliance, a group that advocates for upstate hospitals.

There are more than 20,000 job openings in hospitals in upstate New York according to the IHA, and those numbers aren’t expected to get any better in the foreseeable future.

Fitzgerald said it’s not just nurses, but there are issues hiring techs, back-office staff, and maintenance workers. One of the strategies they’re using to try and convince the state to help, is to look at these job openings as an economic development engine.

“Those are jobs that could be filled tomorrow if we had the right people,” Fitzgerald said. “We don’t need tax breaks, or need a lot of time to build something. So we keep telling elected officials that this is a huge economic development. When you can spend money on recruitment and retention, those 20,000 jobs if we could ever fill them, just think what an economic shot in the arm it would be to Upstate New York.”

Fitzgerald said there are proposals to address recruitment and retention floating around Albany, but he’s not sure they’ll survive budget talks. Hospital advocates are also pushing for more than a 1% increase in Medicaid reimbursements from the state, although that helps downstate hospitals more, because the majority of patients upstate are on Medicare.

At this point, many upstate hospitals are scrambling. At least two have dropped maternity services, and others are digging into savings accounts to cover the cost of expensive traveling nurses who are filling the employment gap.

"Hospitals are looking at all their options to try and figure out what they can do to keep the doors open and what services are critical are to their mission,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s been the fight forever, trying to convince Albany and Washington to pour more money into health care.”

The state budget was due April 1, but as of early Wednesday, no final agreement has been reached yet.