A recent study of Maine's health care industry by the state's Department of Labor expressed concerns about the imbalance between the demand for healthcare workers and the supply, confirming that Maine's healthcare workers are aging, are unevenly distributed around the state, and fewer people are entering the profession to replace those who retire.
Key numbers reported include:
- nearly one out of three surgeons in the state is older than 60
- two out of three Maine dentists are older than 50
- dentistry specialists are concentrated in southern Maine
- nursing vacancies in the state jumped by 34 percent between 2002 and 2006
Health care is a significant industry in Maine with more than 75,000 workers, more than 13 percent of all jobs in Maine, in 2004; wages totaled nearly $2.7 billion, or 14 percent of the state's total. The national average for both jobs and wages is 9 percent.
Maine's nursing shortages are not necessarily from lack of interest in the profession. State nursing schools have waiting lists but not enough instructors. The Labor Department report suggests the state consider programs to lure existing nurses back into practice noting that 13.8 percent of all licensed registered nurses in Maine are either retired, not looking for work, or employed in another field. The professions themselves are adapting to address some shortages, with an increasing use of physician assistants and dental hygienists.
Staffing shortages cause facilities to constantly adjust pay and benefit packages to better compete for workers. Hospitals and physician practices are forced back to the negotiation table to argue for better reimbursement from managed care payors whose primary goal is to decrease reimbursement or, at least, keep payments flat. Payors commonly cap hospital and physician increases at 2 to 3 percent per year, or keep reimbursement for high volume codes and procedures fixed, while the annual cost of living continues to increase an average 5.5 percent.
In the meantime, Maine's demand for health care is expected to increase in coming years, driven by a population whose average age is 41, making it the oldest in the country, and is getting older at a faster rate than the country as a whole. Policy changes and directing more resources into education and training may help create a larger pool of workers in the industry, but the impact won't be immediate, making training only a part of a larger, much-needed, answer.■