Lawmakers asked to extend the law allowing traveling health care professionals to meet Vermont’s critical needs

Healthcare professionals are caring for Covid-19 patients in the emergency room at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington on Monday, December 13th. Photo by Glenn Russell / VTDigger

With growing concerns about the shortage of health care workers and the unprecedented proliferation of Covid-19, Vermont lawmakers could expand a policy that allows retired and non-state health care workers to practice in Vermont.

Before the pandemic, doctors could not practice without a valid medical license from Vermont, and the process of obtaining one can take weeks.

But when the corona crisis hit Vermont in March 2020, the tight regulatory setup went out the window. Law 6 allows licensed providers in other states to work in Vermont and allows retirees to return to practice much faster than usual.

The law also touches on many other aspects of health care, ranging from paying for Covid-19 care to allowing pharmacists to administer nasal swabs.

The law expires in March, but an informal coalition of health advocates is pushing for a one-year extension.

Act 6 makes it easier for traveling staff – often nurses from other states – to work in Vermont. Medical staff who get a permanent job in Vermont could, in theory, start working almost immediately. And it allows medical staff from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to offer support to hospitals as soon as they arrive.

But the rapid process can lead to concerns about patient safety, said Lauren Hibbert, director of the Office of Professional Regulation, which oversees professional licensing.

“I like to know who works in Vermont,” she said Wednesday at a joint meeting of the House Committee on Health and the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. “I want patients to know who works in Vermont. And I also believe that the state should have appropriate regulatory control over people who work in Vermont.”

But Jill Massa Olson, who speaks for a coalition that includes hospitals and providers’ associations, said the state’s staff crunch is worse than it has ever been, and Act 6 has been a crucial means.

“I do not think it is possible to exaggerate the stress on the ground and the need for flexibility,” said Mazza Olson, executive director of VNAs of Vermont, a nonprofit organization of visiting nurses’ associations. “If this flexibility means one nurse more in one place more in one more day, we need it.”

Vermont’s staff shortage in healthcare is approaching a crisis point, as hospital beds and emergency rooms are quickly filling up with the advent of the highly transferable Omicron variant. The Covid-19 crisis has forced a series of canceled or delayed operations, long waiting times in emergency rooms and a shortage of available hospital beds.

Lawmakers said they want to extend the law well in advance of the March 31 expiration date, suggesting some law 6 provisions could become permanent.

“I think we are in – for unfortunate reasons – a unique moment to reset,” the rep said. Mari Cordes, D-Lincoln, who is a trained nurse.

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