Bipartisan legislation under consideration in the House of Representatives has the goal of shoring up the senior living and care workforce pipeline by providing operators with some flexibility in hiring and creating pathways for employment in long-term care.

U.S. Reps. Fred Keller (R-PA) and Susan Wild (D-PA) discussed the Nurses CARE Act during a virtual roundtable on Thursday with the Pennsylvania Health Care Association. The bill, introduced in January, seeks to ensure that long-term care facilities such as assisted living communities and nursing homes can maintain adequate staffing levels by allowing temporary nurse aides to retain their certification status after the COVID-19 emergency declaration has been lifted.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill last fall, state Senate Bill 1268, allowing temporary nurse aides hired during the pandemic to be placed on the state’s Certified Nurse Aide Registry and become eligible for permanent employment in assisted living communities and other long-term care settings. Since last April, almost 3,000 Pennsylvanians have completed the training program, and hundreds were hired by assisted living communities, personal care homes and nursing homes.

Wild called the temporary nurse aide program “lifesaving” for residents and patients of long-term care facilities and an “essential tool in preventing critical healthcare shortages” during the pandemic. The Nurses CARE Act would enable states to offer on-the-job experience as a partial substitute for certification courses and other evaluations. 

“So many selflessly joined the frontlines in nursing homes and long-term care facilities to get our most vulnerable through this crisis,” Wild said. “They deserve their work and on-the-job training to be fully recognized, and those who answered the call deserve to have a pathway for full-time employment once this pandemic ends.”

Deborah Rowe, vice president of nursing workforce development at Genesis HealthCare, said the Kennett Square, PA-based long-term care provider hired more than 600 workers through the temporary nurse aide program during the pandemic. 

The Nurse CARE Act, she said, not only emphasizes on-the-job training and an introduction to long-term care, but it includes a skilled competency component that recognizes the standard education required. The online training component, Rowe said, would not compromise state regulatory courses required for nurse aide training, and it would offer a pipeline to attract workers into the industry.

Under state Senate Bill 1268, temporary nurse aides were required to complete an eight-hour online training course and go through 80 hours of hands-on-training at long-term care facilities.

“We’ve had to get creative when it comes to our workforce, and the TNA is a fantastic example of thinking outside the box and thinking of ways to build this workforce pipeline,” Pennsylvania Health Care Association President and CEO Zach Shamberg said. “This is a career that will last into the next 10 to 20 to 30 years.”

As the third oldest state in the country, Pennsylvania’s fastest-growing demographic is the 85-and-older population, Shamberg said. The state is three to five years away from the “silver wave” when the baby boomers, currently aged 56 to 75, will start to consider or need senior living and care.

“We need to ensure we’ll be able to care for our seniors not just today, but in the months and years to come,” Shamberg said. “In my opinion, workforce is the No. 1 issue facing this sector today and moving forward.”