Nursing shortage leaves Juneau hospice patients with few options until gap is filled

an ambulance with a mountain in the background
Bartlett Regional Hospital pictured in Juneau on Aug. 7, 2022. (Paige Sparks/KTOO)

Juneau has been without hospice and home care since mid-September.

That’s when Catholic Community Service shut the program down because it was unable to find enough staff. Bartlett Regional Hospital plans to take over the services, eventually.

“It’s a big loss to the community because these services are so critical to people’s health and just sort of the quality of life and dignity of our last days,” said Catholic Community Service director, Erin Walker-Tolles. “It’s really tough.”

Walker-Tolles said she directed patients back to their primary care providers when she knew CCS would have to cease services.

CCS had struggled to staff the program for a while, Walker-Tolles said, but the pandemic made the market for nurses even tighter.

“There is a massive health care worker crisis happening in this country. And it’s especially challenging in Alaska. And it is affecting people’s ability to get medical care,” she said.

Walker-Tolles said hospice and home care often used traveling nurses to bolster its local staff. But as the price for nurses increased dramatically over the past few years, she says they were priced out.

“All across the country, the health care worker shortage is affecting especially nonprofit and smaller health care providers,” she said.

The hospice and home care program served about 60 residents before the pandemic, Walker-Tolles said. By the time the program shut down, there were only 17 people using the service. She said they simply didn’t have the staff to take on new patients.

Nathan Rumsey, Bartlett Regional Hospital’s business development strategist, said the hospital’s leadership decided to take over services in mid-August and applied for licenses in mid-November. He said he’s hopeful the hospital will get its licenses in the next 60 to 90 days.

“In the meantime, that obviously puts those people, especially if they can’t seek some type of service outside of this community, that puts them at a disadvantage,” he said. “That’s why we’re trying to move as quickly as we can to reestablish those services.”

Rumsey also said the lapse in service means that primary care physicians and the emergency department are now filling in.

“I am anecdotally aware that there are many patients that would otherwise be able to seek care and get care in their homes that are finding their way into the hospital for other reasons, because they can’t get that and — and that’s a frustration to everyone,” he said.

Bartlett has offered to hire staff from Catholic Community Service, but Rumsey said they will need more nurses. The hospital plans to advertise for those jobs within a few weeks.

Ultimately, he said the timeline is out of the hospital’s control until they receive licenses from the state. Once those are secured, he hopes to be up and running very quickly.

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