Q&A: Matt Calzia on supporting Oregon nurses

The Oregon Nurses Association represents more than 15,000 nurses and health care workers statewide. Throughout the pandemic, nurses have been dealing with stressful work environments. We spoke with Matt Calzia, nurse practice consultant with the Association, to find out what the legislature and health care systems could do to assist nurses. 

Aaron Kunkler: With the legislature set to convene next month, what potential bills are you hoping to see to help nurses?

Matt Calzia: I think for our members right now a really big thing is getting funding and support so that nurses can participate in the Oregon Wellness Program. That’s important to us, because what we’re seeing with our members is there’s been so much fatigue, and mental fatigue that they need mental health services. As we know, there’s a shortage of access to that, or there may be stigma, and nurses may feel uncomfortable using the employee assistance program. The Oregon Wellness Program currently serves physicians, advanced practice nurses, and physician assistants. And they see that folks are more inclined to reach out for help when it’s not through an employer-based program and there’s confidentiality. That’s important to the membership, especially in light of the potential [omicron] surge that’s coming and that we’ve been seeing.

AK: I’ve been reading a lot about burnout, compassion fatigue and moral injury among nurses and health care workers during the pandemic. What are some ways the legislature or health care systems could better support nurses?

MC: Another priority is some work going on to extend emergency nurse licensure to give temporary nurses more time to practice in Oregon before choosing a home, and allowing third-parties to pay for nurse license fees so that those agencies can rapidly increase our workforce when we need it. That is what we depended on in September in that surge so we have a structure in place for that. Looking more long-term, we’d like to see the Oregon Health Authority create a nursing workforce group that studies and advocates for and moves along long-term staffing solutions.

We need to address the faculty issue. There’s still high demand for folks who want to get into nursing, but the schools are unable to meet the demand because of faculty. A lot of that is just the pay disparity. If you work in a clinical environment you make quite a bit more than if you’re a faculty at a nursing school. I think one is trying to figure out how to close that gap of pay, and looking at other incentives around things like student loan repayment.

AK: I’ve also been reading about nurses deciding to become traveling nurses, in part because of higher wages. What can health care systems do to retain nurses? 

MC: I think there’s many factors there. I think the health care systems have hoped that the really high pay for traveling nurses would be something just to be here for COVID, and it was going to be short-lived. But I think what we’re seeing is that these wages are going to remain high, because there’s just a profound shortage around the country. We desperately need the health care systems to really focus on retention because there’s just an enormous expense in replacing nurses. There’s different figures thrown out there, from $60,000 to $100,000, to get a new nurse oriented and up and going in the hospital environment or home health. 

We’re going to be dealing with a shortage for a long time, and travelers are necessary to fill that shortage, but then you get into that cycle of people leaving to go travel. So what we’re seeing in the state is a lot of health care executives and chief nursing officers just walking away from the idea of more financial incentive for their existing staff. 

AK: What role could the state play in bringing health care systems back to the table?

MC: I think the healthcare systems can come back to the table, or be at the table in good faith  and acknowledge the last two years that it’s been really exhausting for frontline staff and figure out ways. The answer isn’t always easy, but there should be some financial incentive and some work to retain staff. They need to also get us access to the Oregon Wellness Program, we need the employers to really step it up in ways that they can help support nurses mental health, because nurses are going to work in a broken healthcare system, day in and day out. They’re having these really, really hard shifts every day. Then when they get out of work, they are either trying to navigate that system, which is again, disjointed and broken, to find their own mental health resources, or maybe those of their children who are also struggling, and there’s really not much out there. These health systems could use all of the resources and expertise to figure out ways to streamline it for these frontline staff. And the Oregon Health Authority could really step it up on enforcing the staffing law.”