Kimberly Marselas

It’s finally happening!

Federal officials, including the commander in chief, are calling out price gouging. Too bad it’s taken a war to make it happen, and that they’re only talking about monitoring the skyrocketing prices of oil and gas.

When it comes to the grossly inflated cost of hiring a temporary nurse to take care of nursing home patients, it appears anyone can still get in the game with impunity.

The Federal Trade Commission remains mum on whether it is even investigating price-gouging among temporary nurse-staffing agencies, despite hundreds if not thousands of anecdotal complaints about anti-competitive behavior from healthcare providers all over the country.

Dozens of lawmakers earlier this year beseeched President Joe Biden to address healthcare worker pricing, but he remains curiously quiet on the issue. He would have done well to pledge more oversight of the staffing sector when he was on a tear against nursing homes earlier this month, giving providers at least something to applaud. 

As it is, the president has pitched more than 20 new reforms for skilled nursing, including staffing initiatives that might cause some facilities’ financial health to decline precipitously. But there is no talk of one thing the government could do right now to ensure high-quality providers are able to stay open: helping them rein in staffing costs by better regulating those triggering the tab ever higher.

Good providers aren’t looking to go cheap here. They’re simply asking for a level playing field. In states that have looked to cap rates, the bar often allows for agencies to still pay twice the going rate of facilities in the state. That’s no raw deal, especially as travel nurses don’t have to travel as far (or sacrifice as much) with so many spots now available in so many locations.

In two conversations with skilled nursing leaders I had in two days, agency staffing came up as a major concern yet again. It is something many providers now just take for granted: Plenty of unethical firms are going to steal their workers, including the ones they’ve invested the time and money to train, and then they’re going to send them back at a ridiculously marked-up rate.

Of course, not all agencies are bad agencies. Good staffing partners have played a pivotal role in helping providers patch their workforce holes, and they’ve done it by paying fair wages and charging reasonable fees given pandemic conditions and the challenge they, too, have in recruiting.

How we talk about agencies matters, and not just to decent staffing firms that feel they’ve been maligned. It also matters to nurses, travel and non-travel, who think everyone is now out to take back the pay increases they’ve fought for over the last two years.

If nurses fill your social media feeds as they do some of mine, you know there’s a careful line to toe here. All this talk about price-gouging and regulating pay is getting muddled.

Research by recruiting site found 9 in 10 travel nurses posting about caps on social media are threatening to quit because of them. Those sentiments are being echoed by non-agency nurses who think providers are coming for them too.

At the end of the day, travel nurses are still nurses. They just have a different employer. Often, they’ve come from facilities just like yours, or in far too many cases these days, they used to work for yours.

You’re not calling them price gougers. You’re likely not even begrudging them better pay as much as you’re upset about the middleman stealing precious resources from a teetering sector.

But they don’t necessarily see it that way. And as long as the problems with unscrupulous agencies persist unabated by any real or perceived regulatory threat, the water will only get murkier. Providers are begging for help. Will the feds clean up the mess or just wash their hands of it?

Kimberly Marselas is senior editor of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News. 

Opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News columns are not necessarily those of McKnight’s.