By Deborah Montgomery, RN
This op-ed was published in the Palm Beach Post on April 26, 2021
As lawmakers in Tallahassee finalize the Florida budget, I hope they take a sober look back over this past year while the COVID-19 healthcare crisis raged through the state, tragically highlighting many of the shortcomings of our healthcare system.
While I have an especially intimate view as a South Florida nurse, we all saw the reports of the virus racing through nursing homes and healthcare facilities; critical shortages of PPE; hospitals at capacity with infected and uninsured patients; and so much more hardship that made Florida a national hot spot.
Many of my co-workers got sick on the job, worked in fear of bringing the virus home, and fought through each day without necessary protections, pay or support. Plenty burned out and quit their jobs, leaving the rest of us in even more understaffed and overstressed conditions.
Sadly, much of this should have been prevented as there was far too little planning and too much politicizing by the governor while people suffered.
It’s not just a COVID-19 failure. Instead, the pandemic exposed and exacerbated long-standing weakness in the system.
And like most public problems, budgeting is a giant factor.
We desperately need more resources to properly staff, train and retain staff to deliver the highest quality patient care. This can mean hazard pay in a crisis like COVID, and an ongoing fair living wage for all caregivers. Certified Nursing Assistants in Florida, for example, provide the bulk of essential daily care in nursing homes, but their average wage is just $12 per hour. Dietary and housekeeping staff at hospitals and healthcare facilities often make even less. Nurses, technicians and others are routinely overworked and under compensated. This creates turnover, staffing shortages and numerous related problems.
We also have a massive segment of our population that is uninsured because health coverage is too expensive. Without regular and preventative care, these Floridians also were more vulnerable and hit hard by COVID.
Yet, there are very achievable solutions if legislators set smart budget priorities. My union, 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, is part of a coalition aptly called The People’s Budget. We believe that rather than doling out giant tax breaks to big businesses, proper funding should be dedicated to support a healthcare system that serves all the people, especially those who need it most.
A huge source of money is readily available if the governor and the GOP majority in Tallahassee would stop playing ideological politics. Billions in federal dollars are accessible by expanding Medicaid, which would provide health coverage to 800,000 additional Floridians and inject critical funds into the health system and economy.
The healthcare industry, business groups and a uniquely broad alliance of Florida groups have been calling on state GOP leaders for years to tap into this critical resource. And now, as part of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, financial incentives are even higher.
The governor and legislature must put Floridians first with a people’s budget, especially in the wake of this pandemic that has claimed 35,000 lives here and laid bare the weaknesses of our public health system. However they wish to fund it, a healthy Florida should be a top budget priority. As a caregiver on the front lines public health, I ask, if not now, when?
Deborah Montgomery is a Wellington resident, a registered nurse at a Palm Beach County hospital and a member of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest union of healthcare workers in Florida.