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St. Croix County targets nursing assistant shortage

Wisconsin's pathway to becoming a certified nursing assistant would face one less obstacle under a measure St. Croix County Board members sent to state officials.

The board on Tuesday, March 5, passed a resolution reducing the number of training hours needed to qualify to be a certified nursing assistant (CNA) from 120 hours to 75. Wisconsin requires the higher number, though the federal minimum is 75 hours.

The Wisconsin Director of Nursing Council, which backs a statewide measure, said the state is experiencing a staffing shortage that has reached crisis levels.

"The health care worker shortage that encompasses both licensed nurses and CNAs is well documented with studies dating back to 2008," according to a statement from the council.

The county's resolution states the 120-hour requirement puts Wisconsin health care facilities at a disadvantage when prospective workers have less stringent requirements across the border in Minnesota.

St. Croix County Health and Rehab Center Administrator Sandy Hackenmueller said the issue is a problem, especially in border communities. She said a lower training threshold could help relieve western Wisconsin facilities that face staffing shortages.

"It is a true crisis," Hackenmueller said. "The staffing crisis is real."

Gov. Tony Evers, who visited Hudson Hospital's Programs for Change unit Thursday, gave the measure a cool reception.

"I personally think dumbing down professions is not a real good way to provide better care, whether it's in schools or whether it's in the health care industry," he said. "I'm always very leery about essentially trying to solve something by lowering the qualifications."

Board members passed the resolution 15-1, with Supervisor Tammy Moothedan dissenting. She said that while it carries the 75-hour requirement and higher wages, Minnesota has CNA staffing shortages, too.

Moothedan said she wanted to wait until after a caregiver's task force recently formed by Evers can offer insight into the CNA shortage problem.

"Let's wait until we have data," she said.

Moothedan also addressed concerns about less training affecting quality of care.

"We're really reducing, in my mind, the standards," she said, adding that CNAs "are taking care of our most vulnerable people."

The resolution states quality care indicators "are impacted by a variety of variables, not just certified nursing assistant training hours." Supervisor Paulette Anderson said facilities provide an additional 12 hours of annual in-house training. That in-house training is resident-specific, she said.

A statewide effort similar to the St. Croix County resolution has traction in Madison, said Rep. Shannon Zimmerman. The River Falls Republican said he backs St. Croix County Board's message and that he has co-signed a bill that's being circulated at the Capitol.

"We are at a disadvantage in the western Wisconsin border district in recruitment and retaining CNAs because of this imbalance," Zimmerman said Wednesday.

Moothedan argued at the County Board meeting that better training, along with increased wages and improved work conditions will be among solutions for the shortage. Zimmerman agreed wages must be addressed, saying Kwik Trip employees make more money than many CNAs.

He said he's also not aware of data connecting fewer training hours to increased participation in the CNA field, but said it would nonetheless remove a barrier.

"The adverse implication is far greater," Zimmerman said.

Sen. Patty Schachtner, D-Somerset, said the health care staffing shortage is driven by factors including a Minnesota-Wisconsin wage gap, an aging population and young migration. She said she's reviewing the St. Croix County resolution and proposed legislation.

"I am open to innovative ideas to help address western Wisconsin's health care needs," she said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is a regional/enterprise reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage includes St. Croix County government, higher education and state politics in Wisconsin. 

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