A stop-gap effort to supplement nursing home staff by lowering some entry-level training requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic may become permanent if Florida lawmakers have their way.

Two separate bills extending the Personal Care Attendant, or PCA, program could be debated by the state’s House and Senate as soon as the legislative session begins in March.

Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration created the program at the start of the pandemic to provide nursing homes an additional source of workers as shortages became evident and some facilities struggled to meet minimum staffing requirements.

The program is set to expire when the COVID-19 state of emergency ends. But two legislators, supported by the Florida Health Care Association, want to make it a permanent, on-the-job pathway for individuals working their way up to certified nursing assistants.

Senate Bill 1132 and House Bill 485 would allow non-certified attendants to begin working in long-term care settings after just eight hours of training. They must pass the CNA certification exam to continue in those rolls longer than four months.

Before the pandemic, CNAs in the state were required to complete 120 hours of training.

FHCA calls the program a “proven success” with about 2,000 individuals joining the long-term care workforce as PCAs as of last week. Spokeswoman Kristen Knapp said more than 85% of care attendants who took CNA exams are now working as CNAs.

Help for a worsening problem

Nursing homes across the country continue to struggle with staff turnover and recruitment. A study issued by U.S. PIRG last month showed shortages were worst among nursing aides, affecting 20.6% of U.S. nursing homes in December, up from 17.4% in May.

“COVID-19 has taken a physical and emotional toll on our healthcare heroes in long-term care,” FHCA Executive Director Emmett Reed said in a press release. “It gives out-of-work Floridians an entry point into the long-term care profession and can help our nursing centers attract and retain new talent to ensure they’re ready to meet the needs of our state’s growing senior population.”

Under the PCA program, nursing homes can create their own training programs, but they must include five hours of classroom and three hours of simulation and competency training. The legislation outlines training topics ranging from residents’ rights to infection control and dementia care.

Not every facility is embracing the PCA pathway.

Louise Merrick, administrator of Five-Star rated Gulf Shore Care Center in Pinellas Park, said she decided not to take advantage of the program.

“In our facility, we took the stance that we’d rather have someone with more advanced training who has finished their (certified nursing assistant) class,” Merrick told the Tampa Bay Times. “We just feel it’s a safer environment for our patients with the most highly qualified people we can provide.”

Knapp counters that the program will give providers a broader and stronger workforce to lean on as they rebound from COVID-19.

“The program is working to bring new talent into the profession amid an already shrinking labor pool,” she told McKnight’s Long-Term Care News on Tuesday. “As facilities work to recover from the pandemic, rebuilding their workforce will ensure they can continue protecting their residents from the virus and have the staff needed to give them the high-quality care they expect and deserve.”