Street Talk: Health care staff shortages are on the horizon


“Is Long-Anticipated Slowdown Here?” was the arresting headline on a news release from Altarum Institute in early August.

Altarum is a nonprofit health systems research and consulting organization in Ann Arbor, and the news release was referencing a perceived slow-down at long last in health-care related hiring.

Altarum said U.S. health care employment rose by only 2,500 jobs in July 2013 — “well below the 24-month average of 22,000, and the lowest increase since July 2003.”

The firm also said that hospitals lost 4,400 jobs in July and downward revisions wiped out most of June’s gains. Over the past three months, hospitals have lost 13,000 jobs. Ambulatory care employment continues to rise (up by 6,600), but this is well below the 24-month average of 15,600, and nursing and residential care job growth is essentially flat.

Well, is this the long-anticipated slowdown in what is probably the nation’s biggest growth industry?

We asked one of the most knowledgeable people in West Michigan when it comes to the business of health care.

Mike La Penna is founder of The La Penna Group Inc., a Grand Rapids-based health care business consulting firm since 1987. He works around the country with hospitals, physicians’ groups, and especially with major corporations such as Toyota, British Petroleum, Time Inc. and so on that are setting up their own on-site health care services for employees.

La Penna said because of the consolidations and mergers across the hospital industry in the U.S., there may be some flatness in some places. However, in certain types of jobs, such as primary care physicians, nurses and physical therapists, “there are extreme shortages. And in some geographical areas, the shortages are critical.”

And then, he said, we have not yet seen what the expansion of Medicaid is going to do to the demand for health care services.

Oh yeah. Michigan just passed its expansion of Medicaid last week. Now the question is, will it take effect immediately or in three months? Regardless, as noted by Gov. Rick Snyder last week, 470,000 uninsured Michigan residents will now be eligible for Medicaid, “most working but earning less than $15,000 a year.”

La Penna says these newly insured Michiganders will be flooding into the market place as consumers, which will, at first, result in “peak loading” of the health care system.

“We’re still seeing very robust hiring in health care,” said La Penna, adding that he knows health care industry recruiters who say, “We’ve got openings, but we can’t find people.”

County quarterback

A veteran public official more than likely will have his employment contract extended. Kent County commissioners are all but certain to give County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio three more years as the organization’s top executive.

His current contract ends Dec. 31, and commissioners have unanimously extended the employment agreement on five previous occasions: in 1999, 2001, 2004, 2007 and 2010. The county’s Legislative and Human Resources Committee recommended that his contract be extended for a sixth time last week.

“I have worked with Daryl on a revised agreement that incorporates very little change to the existing one. Specifically, there are only three changes,” wrote Commission Chairman Dan Koorndyk in a memo to the committee.

The new agreement runs through 2016 and offers Delabbio a contribution of $5,500 to his Roth IRA for each of those three years if he chooses not to participate in the county’s health insurance program during the term of the contract.

The county also will raise his monthly car allowance to $800 from the current $675.

“Daryl had voluntarily reduced the vehicle allowance from its original $800 a month to $675 a month in 2010, which was formalized in the agreement approved for 2011 through 2013,” said Koorndyk.

“Given Daryl’s tenure and consistent solid performance and dedication to the organization, the proposed changes are relatively modest,” he added.

Delabbio has been with the county for 33 years, the last 15 in his current post. His annual salary will remain at $157,558. His annual vacation time of 25 days will also remain the same.

Cooperation tops competition

Grand Valley Metro Council Executive Director John Weiss seemed to be prouder of how a grant the organization received recently was allocated than he was of getting it.

“Once again, this process was an excellent example of the spirit of cooperation that exists in our GVMC family,” wrote Weiss in his weekly newsletter.

The Metro Council was awarded a $688,000 grant that can only be spent to help fund non-motorized projects in the region. Non-motorized projects normally involve routes for bicycles and pedestrians.

As a result of its request for proposals, a GVMC committee heard from 15 of its members who submitted 85 separate projects. Those projects would cost a total of $38 million to build, and $3.8 million in grant funds was requested.

The council’s Non-Motorized Committee went to work and reduced the number of projects from 85 to seven and the total grant request from $3.8 million to $924,128.

“This was difficult work, but the list still exceeded the total available funds,” said Weiss.

Then the council’s Transportation Programming Study Group met and recommended that six members spilt the grant funding to help pay for $1.16 million of non-motorized transportation projects.

The funds were awarded to Rockford, Wyoming, Grand Rapids, Cannon and Jamestown townships and the Kent County Parks Department.

Jamestown Township Supervisor Ken Bergwerff said the council’s process enabled them to see the larger issues that face the larger community, and it helped them understand how they could work collaboratively rather than let member communities try to outdo each other.

“In the end, all of the citizens are receiving the greatest benefit with this collaboration,” said Bergwerff.

Cannon Township Clerk Bonnie Blackledge said it was encouraging to witness the give-and-take that went on between members when they discussed which projects should be given the top priorities.

“Many members were willing to postpone their projects and give support to others so that those deemed the most crucial could be funded. Instead of a competition for funds, it was a collaboration of communities,” said Blackledge.

The grant money came from the federal Transportation Alternatives Program, which is awarding a total of $808.7 million nationwide for the 2013 fiscal year.

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