Despite changes to policy and rules, Idaho health systems still face significant challenges in recruiting out-of-state nurses to fill gaps during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Health systems are struggling to staff hospitals. Staff members might be out sick, have to quarantine, or need to take care of kids or family members. Ordinarily, supplementing staff members with a traveling nurse might be a good option for hospitals.

There are dozens — if not hundreds — of staffing agencies that connect hospitals with prospective nurses, said Brian Whitlock, president and CEO of the Idaho Hospital Association. The demand for hospital staff across the country has made the process much more expensive than before.

“Prior to COVID-19, our hospitals would expect to pay anywhere from $25 to $60 per hour — plus some expenses — depending on the type of nurse,” Whitlock wrote. “We are hearing that because of the national shortage of nurses, some hospitals are paying as much as $120 to even $200 an hour for an ICU nurse.”

Idaho’s Board of Nursing has tried to help. Gov. Brad Little’s emergency declaration in March allowed the board to remove administrative and bureaucratic barriers for nurses who want to renew their license or come out of retirement. Early on, the board would provide traveling nurses with a free, temporary license to work in Idaho, said Russ Barron, the board’s executive director. Later on, the board decided to do away with the need for a temporary license altogether.

“We’re trying to do our best to not be an obstacle,” Barron said. “Let’s just get out of the way.”

If a nurse is licensed in their home state, and an employer is comfortable hiring them, Barron said the board would not impede the process. Every month, employers send a list of traveling nurses in their employ to the board. He estimated there are currently 20 traveling nurses working in Idaho.

Whitlock and Barron speculated pay might have to do with Idaho health systems’ ability to lure traveling nurses to their facilities. Some companies in other states pay more than Idaho, Barron pointed out.

Whitlock said nurses might also consider the prevalence of the new coronavirus when deciding whether to work in a facility.

“If safety outside of work is a factor, they may pass up opportunities in one state over another because of a high volume of COVID in the community,” he wrote.