Nurse shortage affects county

In what is becoming a familiar scene in public health districts across the country, Island County is facing a nursing shortage.

If the county cannot fill one nursing position by the end of the month, the Island County Jail will have to look elsewhere for nursing services.

In addition, a position for a supervisory public health nurse has not had one applicant in the four weeks it has been open.

This has resulted in services on South Whidbey such as immunization clinics, home visits and a team clinic two Mondays per month having either been cut back or cancelled, Island County Nursing Director Carol McNeil said.

“If we can’t fill the position, we’ll have to eliminate some of the services and some of the contracts we have,” she said. “If we don’t create a solution to the problem, I don’t think things will get better.”

The problem, officials think, is because the position is underpaid.

Originally advertised for $19.27 an hour, the Island County Board of Commissioners gave the go ahead Wednesday to raise the wage to $21.42 an hour.

This means that a person who works full-time for the county could make less than an RN just starting at Whidbey General.

The hospital’s starting salary is $20.50 per hour, but work the weekend shift, and receive a $4 per hour shift differential. Whidbey General nurses top out at $37.11 per hour, in addition to shift differentials.

At Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, a supervisory nurse can make any where from $26.10 to $39.94 per hour.

McNeil said that the salary disparities have made filling open vacancies more and more difficult.

“For a long time, our wages were competitive enough and the draw of living on beautiful Whidbey Island was enough to keep people here,” she said. “But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out our salaries don’t match up.”

Tim McDonald, Island County Health Department director, said that the raise the commissioners gave the position is a step in the right direction.

“We’ll see if it works,” he said. “But I can’t predict where it will go.”

The nursing shortage is nothing new to the county. McDonald said staff presented to the commissioners three years ago, and again 18 months later, the need for more nurses in the county.

“The nursing shortage is finally impacting Whidbey,” McDonald said. “We’d been insulated from it for a while.”

The lack of an applicant pool could cost the county more than a couple of dollars per hour. Another nursing position will open at the end of the month, and if it is not filled by then, the contract between the county and the jail will be terminated. This means that the Sheriff’s office will have to seek a private contract for health care.

Island County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Jan Smith said that the jail must provide healthcare for its inmates. This can become a pricey venture when drugs for people with serious medical conditions must be purchased.

“The medical office sees a lot of people in very desperate positions,” Smith said. “They come in with very serious physical conditions.”

Under the jail’s contract with the county, it receives 28 hours per week of patient care. This costs the jail approximately $55,000 annually, Smith said. Pursuing a private contract would cost the jail considerably more, she said.

Because Whidbey is geographically isolated, it is difficult to attract a private firm to provide care on Whidbey.

“I have no doubt that it would be considerably more expensive to go to a private contractor,” Smith said.

McDonald said that the health department has until the end of the month to find a replacement jail nurse before it must decide if it has to terminate the contract with the jail.

You can reach News-Times reporter Eric Berto at

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