Like many of you, I draw comfort from the fact that Maine Medical Center is here for my family. Whether it is our world-class cardiac care, the inspiring work of the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital or the fact that MMC is home to Maine’s only Level 1 Trauma Center, all of us sleep better knowing this incredible care team is here for us.

In this screen capture from a Maine Medical Center video posted on the hospital’s Facebook page Sept. 3, an ICU nurse cares for a COVID-19 patient at Maine Med. The hospital has rescheduled non-urgent procedures, and the backlog reached 1,500 last month. Image from Maine Medical Center video

For that reason, news last month that this extraordinary health care asset is being stretched to capacity is unsettling. I want to assure the people of Maine and New Hampshire, however, that we are here for them, and with their help, it will remain so.

The incredible professionals who work here are being tested. Our Emergency Department is constantly full and on frequent “diversion,” meaning only certain critical cases can be brought there. We’ve had to reschedule non-urgent procedures, with the backlog of these reaching 1,500 last month. And our hospital is full, with many patients awaiting transfer to a nursing home, skilled nursing facility or behavioral health setting.

Behind this capacity challenge are global and national trends. We entered the pandemic already experiencing a health care labor shortage, and now burnout and a shortage of workers across the entire economy have made that worse. During the early months of COVID-19, many people understandably delayed care, and people are showing up at the hospital much sicker than before. And COVID-19 is still here, as the delta variant tears through the ranks of the unvaccinated, landing many in the hospital for care requiring a lot of resources to deliver.

How, you might ask, do we get out from under this?

We are taking steps to address the situation. We actively manage bed capacity across MaineHealth. We work with other hospitals and community service agencies. We’ve extended hours for walk-in, urgent and primary care to take pressure off our Emergency Departments. We’ve raised wages and increased incentives for hard-to-fill shifts. We are investing in training and education. All this is without a change in the payment rates we receive.

Still, I think the key lies in our vision: “Working together so our communities are the healthiest in America.” Indeed, we are all going to have to work together. We need your help.

Please, get vaccinated against COVID-19. The evidence is overwhelming. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in August that unvaccinated individuals are 29 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19. Not only will you be protecting yourself, but you also will be preserving hospital capacity.

Things also can be done from a public policy perspective, and we’d ask that you urge our elected officials to help mitigate this crisis.

We need robust public investment in community mental health treatment. Across MaineHealth on any given day, a third to half of our ED beds are filled with patients experiencing a behavioral health crisis.

We need investment in educating the caregivers of tomorrow. The initiative announced Oct. 25 by Gov. Mills, putting $4 million in COVID relief funding into scholarships and student loan relief, is a good start. But we need passage of a bill in the upcoming legislative session providing an additional $2.5 million to support training more nurses at Maine community colleges – where 1,500 people sit on wait lists.

We need continued regulatory flexibility so that we can efficiently direct care resources where they are needed.

The Legislature also needs to build on its good work toward creating a more sustainable model for our nursing facilities. Low pay and long hours for certified nursing assistants and others working in our nursing homes and residential treatment programs won’t cut it in this economy.

And speaking of pay, it is basic economics that, in order to attract and retain good people in our industry, we will have to pay competitive wages, and that means reimbursements for care from both private and public payers will have to keep pace.

None of these initiatives will provide instant relief. These challenges are likely to persist well into next year. That’s going to be rough on our care team. So I have one final ask: Be kind to our care team. They truly are heroes. And rest assured, they will continue to be here for you.

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