By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Few are on the COVID-19 front lines quite like respiratory therapists. Over the past two and a half years, these unsung heroes have been overworked and overexposed to a respiratory disease that has claimed nearly 15,000 lives in Wisconsin, more than 1 million nationwide.
The ongoing licensing crisis at Gov. Tony Evers’ dysfunctional Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS) has made life even harder for these critical health care workers.
Alexis Cumber is among a long list of spring graduates still waiting for her respiratory therapist license to be processed by DSPS, buried under a backlog of professional credential applications. Cumber, warned of the long delays by her college instructors, said she began the application process in February.
When she was actually able to reach a DSPS official, Cumber was told the agency was transitioning from a paper-based to an electronic filing system. She was told conflicting information about how she was supposed to complete her required ethics examination, and she said it took months before her online file was updated.
Cumber even paid an additional fee to expedite her license. DSPS quickly cashed her checks. She’s still waiting for her license.
“It’s frustrating,” she said. “A lot of these people have taken out student loans. You’re supposed to start paying for those within six months of graduating. How are we able to do so?”
Cumber, 22, says she’s one of the luckier ones. She has been working in a Stevens Point hospital as a respiratory assistant, drawing an income while she waits for her license to be able to do the job she’s spent years and thousands of dollars training for. But she’s making half of what she would as a fully licensed respiratory therapist.
According to information obtained by state Sen. Dale Kooyenga’s office, only 30% of the graduating class of 2022 had received their respiratory therapist license earlier this summer. Professionals are at their wit’s end with the long delays and the lack of answers and progress.
Cumber said she’s logged a lot of hours on the job. Her co-workers have struggled to keep up with the demands of a respiratory disease pandemic, exacerbated by a health care worker shortage and the failure of state regulators to deal with the crisis.
“We’re still dealing with COVID, and the fall (peak) season is coming up,” Cumber said. “It’s exhausting. I can name a huge hospital, they’re still 10 therapists short. They’re overworking the therapists to cover those hours.” Because she’s not licensed, Cumber is not able to work with the life-support units.
As Empower Wisconsin has detailed in a series reports, The license backlog has left untold numbers of health care workers, electricians, cosmetologists, you name it, waiting months, some more than a year, for their credentials.
When frustrated professionals waiting for their long-delayed licenses reach out to Evers’ office for help, they get an automatic email — a political screed blaming the Republican-controlled Legislature for Wisconsin’s licensing crisis.
“Since its creation in 2011, DSPS has been understaffed, underfunded, and under resourced, which has set the stage for the situation the agency finds itself in today. In short, DSPS is staffed at a dire level,” the email from Evers claims. It makes a lot of claims in a purely political, CYA message, including the charge that the “State Legislature has decided to take no action to resolve this situation…”
The Legislature in July 2021 set aside $5 million for system upgrades. DSPS officials did not seek the funding until recently. And Evers waited until early this year to allocate a portion of the billions of dollars he controls in federal COVID relief aid to deal with the backlog.
Two years into the licensing crisis, the DSPS customer service counter at its Madison headquarters was still only open until 12:30 p.m. daily. According to a source at the office, a young pregnant woman, pushing a baby stroller and toddlers in tow was recently seen weeping at the empty customer service desk. The Spanish-speaking woman could not understand why the desk had closed at 12:30.
For new health care workers like Cumber, it’s particularly frustrating that the agency decided to begin its transition to an electronic filing system at the time students were graduating. In April, DSPS announced it was going to implement a license application blackout. It would not accept initial license applications for 72 license types between noon, April 29 and May 15. Professionals from acupuncturists to wholesale distributors of prescription drugs will be affected. Respiratory care practitioners were on that list.
“They did that in the middle of May, when people were graduating. They couldn’t have picked a worse time to do that,” Cumber said.
With the usual warnings of the fall-winter seasonal spike in COVID cases, it’s a bad time to have respiratory care workers stuck in bureaucratic limbo.