The state of Mississippi is losing its only burn center at Merit Health Central in South Jackson. The JMS Burn and Reconstruction Center, which includes 13 intensive care patient rooms, is closing due to staffing issues.
"The complex medical needs of burn patients require support from a broad range of specialists — ones you typically associate with burn programs, such as plastic surgery, and others you may not typically think of, like gastroenterology, ophthalmology, and urology,” Merit Health Central said in a statement. “The COVID-19 pandemic and the challenging staffing and recruitment environment have made it increasingly difficult for us to recruit the breadth of specialists needed to maintain the burn program, which is the primary reason why we’ve made the difficult decision to close the Burn Center effective October 14, 2022.”
Former nurses who worked at the unit claim the COVID-19 pandemic complicated things by providing higher paying opportunities for traveling nurses.
“When there was a pandemic going on many of the nurses went traveling and many of them decided it was more beneficial to keep traveling than to come back to Mississippi and stay,” said Virginia Tate, a former burn center employee. “Most of the ‘burners’ I knew loved their work, but when the pandemic hit, they offered so much more money to travel.”
Nurse.org claims many travel nurses “have the potential to earn over $3,000 per week,” or more.
“Travel nurses can bring in over $50 per hour, plus company-paid housing accommodations. Making it entirely possible for travel nurses to make well over $100K per year,” the website claims. It added that pandemic-related spikes in demand in places like New York City offered new nurses remarkable incentives, with some packages paying $10,000 per week, or $100,000 for a 13-week assignment, which often includes paid rent. Merit Health is working hard to compete with a $30,000 signing bonus to new “RNs in select positions.”
Exorbitant pay isn’t the only draw, according to sources. Nurses who took traveling health jobs also learned that out-of-state hospitals had more modern equipment and technology, and that coming back to Mississippi was like “coming back to 1980.”
Nurses quit their jobs and fled the state in droves last year, during the COVID-19 outbreak, with headlines proclaiming ‘Mississippi’s nurses are resigning to protect themselves from Covid-19 burnout,” along with additional references to better pay and treatment. The situation for Mississippi hasn’t improved much, apparently, with statewide nursing shortages still plaguing the state. Hospitals are fighting among themselves to hire nurses and Mississippi lost more than 2,000 nurses over the course of the pandemic due to higher paying out-of-state jobs.
State Auditor Shad White claims hospitals and nursing home heads have warned him that the state’s nursing shortage could reach the point where Mississippi’s elderly can’t get care. Mississippi’s brain drain extends much further than the healthcare industry, with youth generally abandoning the state. White published an April report recommending three methods to stall the loss, but those methods stopped at creating fellowships with in-state work requirements, pressing universities to somehow encourage youth to stay after graduation, and controlling crime in the city of Jackson, even though the city only accounts for 5.4 % of the state’s population.
It's more than just better pay elsewhere, according to Tate. “A lot of nurses would love to stay here, but there is absolutely nothing to do here, plus the pay sucks. I’m only here because of my age. I’m 62. If I was fresh out of college I would not—WOULD NOT—be here. Mississippi does not have a nurses’ union. We do not offer our nurses stability to be here. And there’s nothing to do.”
Merit Health representatives said they recognized “the importance of burn services to the community and region,” and that the hospital has been “in discussions with other regional providers to explore the possibility of them establishing a burn program.”
Sen. David Blount (D-Jackson) who has spent much of his career advocating for a burn unit in the state, said he worried what the shutdown would mean for future burn patients in terms of cost and wait time.
“This is an inconvenience to families, and we need to explore ways to keep a burn center in Mississippi, so Mississippians won’t have to travel when accidents occur,” Blount told The Lighthouse “… You’ve got issues that all hospitals in Mississippi are facing now as a result of COVID and as a result of the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid. You’ve also got the issue that hospitals in Jackson are facing with our ongoing water problems.”
Mark Horne, MD., chief medical officer of South Central Regional Medical Center, of Laurel, and past president of the Mississippi State Medical Association, laid the closing directly in the lap of state leaders who still oppose expanding Medicaid.
“If we were to find ways to expand access to healthcare in that way then it would provide clinics (like the burn center) the revenue to pay staff,” Horne said.
Mississippi is one of roughly 10 states that have refused to expand Medicaid, which leaves about 300,000 Mississippians stuck in a healthcare coverage gap with no health insurance. The state’s current plan insures the disabled, poor pregnant women, children, and the elderly. However, most able-bodied Mississippians working poverty-level jobs do not qualify for coverage, despite the state ranking 50th in poverty rate, at 21.5%.
The resulting swell of uninsured who require hospital services every year drain facility resources when they fail to pay their bill, leaving doctors and medical staff with lower pay, older technology and staff shortages. These liabilities give nursing students few reasons to remain in the state after graduation, and hospitals and clinics very little wiggle room to absorb costs. Six rural Mississippi hospitals, not including the burn clinic, have closed since 2014 under state leadership. A Chartis Center for Rural Health study warns that an additional 64% of Mississippi's remaining rural hospitals are at risk of closing.
“Even if I could give away my time, I can’t give away the medication patients need,” Horne said. “If they had insurance, then we could take care of that, but most low-income patients can’t afford these things.”
Still most of the state’s GOP leadership oppose expanding Medicaid, even to save their own hospitals. Many Mississippi Republicans even speak scathingly of the expansion, otherwise known as Obamacare, because the initiative is a product of the Obama presidency. Horne suggested legislators put their politics aside and do what’s best for the state and save its hospitals and clinics.
“We can name the expansion different things, if that’s what we need to do, but we need to look beyond the talking point to the reality we’re facing,” Horne said.
Administrators did not say what out-of-state facility will be accepting future patients after Oct. 14. After the closure of the underfunded Mississippi Firefighters Burn Center in Greenville, emergency officials flew burn victims to a facility in Augusta, Ga.