By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Is Gov. Tony Evers inappropriately using the Wisconsin National Guard? Wisconsin’s Republican House delegation wants answers.
In a letter to the governor, the lawmakers raise questions and concerns about the use of Guard members as semi-permanent healthcare staff amid Wisconsin’s workforce shortage crisis. It follows Evers’ Feb. 8 request to President Joe Biden seeking to extend full federal funding for the National Guard until the end of September.
“We have no doubt that the Wisconsin National Guard is an incredibly versatile force that can serve some of Wisconsin’s most vulnerable populations well. But your recent letter to President Biden suggests that you are planning to use a federally-funded National Guard as a solution to a long-term workforce challenge,” the letter states. “We have concerns with the sustainability of this approach especially considering the nearly two-year deployment of the Guard in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
In January, about 70 Guard members underwent Certified Nursing Assistant training at Madison College, as they prepared to deploy in Wisconsin’s COVID-stressed health care system. They joined approximately 50 other troops assigned to long-term care facilities across Wisconsin. Guard troops assisted as CNAs at facilities in Mineral Point, Wisconsin Dells, La Crosse, New London, Milwaukee, Green Bay, Cornell, Woodville, Sturgeon Bay, Suring, Antigo, Weyauwega, Kaukauna, Kenosha, Waunakee, Glendale and Racine, according to the Wisconsin National Guard.
More were to be trained for healthcare assistance roles.
Approximately 600 Wisconsin National Guard troops continue to assist the state in various capacities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wisconsin Army National Guard said last month. Many remain engaged with community COVID-19 testing, where they helped the state administer more than 1.2 million tests..
While the Guard has provided “invaluable services to their fellow Wisconsinites,” the House members are concerned about their use after the emergency. Peak hospitalizations have past, with Wisconsin averaging fewer than 470 new COVID-19 cases per day over the week. That’s the lowest level since late July as cases began to soar. Most recently, the Department of Health Services reported an average of 25 COVID-19 hospitalizations per day. That’s the fewest COVID-19 patients since Aug. 4, and the fewest ICU patients since late July.
So are the Guard members being used to deal with an urgent public health need or a health care worker shortage — a shortage in part created by health care providers who have suspended or fired health care workers and staff who have refused COVID vaccines?
Wisconsin Republican House members note the unprecedented amount of federal COVID relief that Evers controls, a significant amount he has allocated to health care aid. And they say it’s time to move past crisis management.
“Now that officials and experts are finally admitting that COVID-19 will be endemic it is time for our leaders to think creatively about how to unwind emergency stopgaps and return to normal,” the lawmaker letter to Evers states. “Unlike testing or the distribution of PPE and vaccines, long-term care facility staff shortages have causes other than just the COVID-19 pandemic.”
They ask Evers to respond to the following questions:
- How have the federal and state COVID relief dollars you distributed to long-term care facilities been used to address staffing shortages? What plans have you developed to increase the staffing of long-term care facilities without using the Wisconsin National Guard?
- How has turning to the Wisconsin National Guard impacted the development of solutions to the more systemic workforce challenges facing the long-term care industry?
- You have asked for an extension of full federal funding for the Wisconsin National Guard until September 30, 2022. Do you expect to use the Guard as CNAs until that time? If not, how long do you plan to use the Guard to supplement staffing at long-term care facilities?
- What units have you activated and what units are you planning to activate? What are their Primary Military Occupational Specialty?
- What impact has the two-year COVID response mission had on the training and equipment readiness standards of the Wisconsin National Guard?