Q&A: FHA CEO discusses COVID-19 vaccine rollout, staffing issues facing hospitals

Mary Mayhew has been the CEO of the Florida Hospital Association for only a few months, but she has a wealth of experience working in health care advocacy. Mayhew spoke to State of Reform about the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in Florida, staffing issues facing Florida hospitals and other issues hospitals are currently facing in the state. 

Mansur Shaheen: How did you end up working with the Florida Hospital Association?

Mary Mayhew: I joined the Florida Hospital Association in October. Before that, I had served for nearly two years for Gov. DeSantis as the Secretary for the Agency for Healthcare Administration, overseeing the state’s Medicaid program. I was also responsible for a great deal of oversight in the state’s response to the pandemic, engaging with our hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities. I previously worked for the Maine Hospital Association for 11 years.

MS: What are the FHA’s goals? What do you provide for your members?

MM: The Florida Hospital Association is an advocacy organization. We represent the collective voice of Florida hospitals, advocating locally in communities and in regions around the state. We provide education resources to our hospitals to support key priorities around quality improvement to provide education and information around various health care and financial policy changes. We are an organization that, through the collective participation of hospitals, develops a vision for the future of health care.

MS: What can the federal or state government do to help the vaccine rollout in the state go smoother?

MM: This has really been more of a tiered and phased in approach, as it should be. Hospitals were initially engaged to focus on their staff to support health care personnel in the community getting vaccinated. The state has actually started to broaden the community based efforts to include the large grocery store chains with pharmacies. Hospitals have finished their vaccination of their employees, but the state is clearly looking to maximize some of these other options. Hospitals stand ready to partner and support the state in this effort to efficiently, effectively and urgently deploy the vaccine. The reality is you have to be able to maximize health care personnel. There just are not a lot of individuals who are health care personnel who are idle, waiting to administer vaccines, so you’ve got to be able to redeploy staff.

MS: Is vaccine supply the main issue facing Florida’s vaccine rollout at the moment?

MM: The bottom line is it’s a great thing that so many people want to be vaccinated. It’s a great thing that we have a vaccine to administer. We simply have nowhere near the supply in Florida to meet that demand. Florida has been receiving roughly 250,000 doses a week. We have 4.5 million people who are 65 and older, and each need two doses. If you had 100% uptake rate, then you would need 9 million doses just for that population. So, the supply is simply not enough.

MS: Do you believe that supply issues could be remedied under a new Presidential administration?

MM: We all want to have hope that there will be a dramatic increase in the supply. Whether that is through new vaccines coming on the market or through the ability of the manufacturers to increase production. The methodology used by the federal government to allocate absolutely needs to supply Florida with more vaccines because of the volume of individuals we have who are 65 and older. Hopefully soon, (there will be) an increase in the amount of vaccines coming to Florida.

MS: You mentioned staffing a moment ago, what kind of staffing challenges are Florida hospitals facing?

MM: I’m very concerned about where we are with staffing challenges. Workforce issues in health care are often challenging. These are very difficult and demanding jobs, but that has only been made worse by this unprecedented pandemic. I have spoken to many hospitals that have seen an exodus of some of their nurses because of the strain and stress of this pandemic, not just professionally but the impact it can have personally in family members not wanting to be around them for fear of increased exposure to COVID-19. I’ve spoken to hospitals and they’re feeling the challenges of workforce shortages right now. I think the other concern that I have is whether the pipeline of new graduates has been disrupted. With the impact on our education system and various clinical programming, we are also going to find ourselves without the ability to hire new grads at the same rate.

MS: What do you think needs to be done to solve this problem? Is there an action the legislature could take either at the state or national level that could help alleviate this problem for hospitals?

MM: We need to make sure we have good data and information. But the challenge in doing any kind of data analysis right now is that we will not fully know the impact of the pandemic. We are looking at opportunities to do some type of surveying or focus group discussions to understand what will likely be the short-term and potentially long-term implications of the pandemic on our workforce challenges. Through that analysis and research we will inform meaningful action steps to remedy these issues.

The great thing about health care professions is there’s often strong interest among middle school, high school and college students in pursuing a career in health care. There are many individuals who see health care as a second career opportunity.

MS: What does the FHA want to see passed in the upcoming legislative session?

MM: One of our primary areas of focus right now is to get protection from COVID-19 lawsuits. To have the legislature provide liability protection for health care providers. Given the fact that we were learning something new about this virus every day, the guidance was frequently changing (and) there was no real standard of care standard medical practice. The last thing we need is for hospitals and nurses and doctors to be dealing with lawsuits left and right.

MS: Rep. Sprowls recently filed a liability shield bill in the Florida house, but the bill was later amended to remove health care providers. How does the FHA feel about this move?

MM: We believe that there are common interests among businesses and health care in terms of what we were confronted with in this pandemic. We believe it should be one bill that advances this goal of protecting businesses, and health care providers from lawsuits.