HME labor pool takes a belly flop

Friday, February 28, 2003

YARMOUTH, Maine - The pool of skilled HME professionals such as respiratory therapists and rehab technology suppliers has never been shallower, and don’t look for it to improve any time soon. In fact, due to a dearth of college training programs, among other things, it could get worse, say industry watchers.

“Even the respiratory therapists I’ve interviewed have said that if you have a warm body and a license you can get a job,” said Jill Spellman, president of Oxygen One in Waukesha, Wi. “Finding a good one is tough.”

Spellman’s not alone.

It took Homecare Concepts in Farmingdale, N.Y. six months to find a new clinical respiratory director, said Frank Brown, executive vice president. A client of HME consultant Steve Lutzker has hired and lost two rehab techs over the past year and is still looking for a competent replacement. Chesapeake Rehab in Baltimore, Md., has lost four RTSs to a single manufacturer over the past 18 months, said President Gary Gilberti.

Finding good salespeople is equally tough. Not only must a salesperson be part billing specialist, part social worker and part mechanic - skills that generally don’t crossover to other industries - they need a genuine interest in homecare, Gilberti said.

“I’ve had salespeople who come to me saying they want to get into home care, and I ask them to ride with me for a day and see what we do,” Gilberti said. “At the end of the day, they are like, ‘You guys really get your hands dirty.’ I ask, ‘Now do you really want to do it?’ ‘Nope. I’m going to go sell widgets.”’

A number of issues over the past few years have contributed to the falloff in interest among workers who otherwise might have considered a career in the HME industry.

First, a perception exists that that healthcare is not a good field to enter. The backlash against managed care has contributed to that, fueled by the grumbling of doctors, nurses and other professionals who claim insurers are more interested in the bottomline than patient care.

Secondly, as it becomes tougher to bill and collect, salespeople are finding that healthcare is not the stable, high-paying career they thought it was, said Lutzker

Thirdly, high schools and colleges, for the most part, don’t emphasize the field. If that’s to change, the industry will have to provide the catalyst, proving a need exists and then helping colleges and technical schools develop appropriate curriculums, say industry watchers.

Meanwhile, the grind to find good technical help continues. In some quarters, for example, the competition for respiratory therapists is so fierce that companies recruit constantly, and if the opportunity arises, snatch one away from the competition, said Mario LaCute, president of Seeley Medical in Andover, Ohio.

On the rehab side, where much of the training occurs on the job, companies more and more require new hires to sign non-compete agreements in exchange for that training.

“We counsel our clients to do that,” said consultant Wallace Weeks of The Weeks Group. “It’s saying that if we are going to spend money training you, we are not going to do it for a competitor.” HME