Ryan Dixon, anesthesia program student from the University of New England, works in the operating room at Northern Maine Medical Center in this 2020 file photo. The hospital's expansion project will feature new operating areas, and five retired nurses recently toured the ongoing construction. Credit: Courtesy of Northern Maine Medical Center

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Maine needs more workers, in many jobs and geographic areas. But, a shortage of health care workers, especially in rural areas, is particularly critical.

A bill that awaits funding in the state Legislature could help.

LD 1797 would fund programs to help the state recruit and retain more physicians and nurses. An amended version of the bill would provide funding to medical facilities to help offset the cost of training new medical personnel. Many facilities, especially smaller medical centers in rural areas, say they don’t take on medical trainees because it takes time and resources away from other needed work. The funding is meant to bridge that gap.

Funding for scholarships and loan forgiveness, which was originally part of the bill, was included in the updated budget, which was passed by the Appropriations Committee earlier this week.

The training portion, with a price tag of $2.5 million a year, is an important investment as well.

Already, Maine has a shortage of health care workers, including doctors and nurses, which can leave patients without the medical care that they need.

Heads of health care companies, hospitals and others testified last month about the dire need for more doctors and nurses across the state.

“Maine’s healthcare workforce shortage is impacting every facet of care. Patient outcomes are affected daily because hospitals cannot move patients to the appropriate level of care or place – skilled nursing, home health or another hospital – due to the lack of workforce to care for them,” Sally Weiss of the Maine Hospital Association, told members of the Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Business Committee.

She gave the example of 118 behavioral health patients who were held in emergency departments throughout Maine on just one day in February because of a lack of clinical personnel to staff psychiatric beds.

The situation could get worse. Nearly half of the state’s physicians and nurse practitioners, for example, are over 50, as are two-thirds of the state’s dentists and psychologists, according to a 2014 assessment by the Maine Department of Labor.

Training replacements for those nearing retirement is essential. Doing it where there is the greatest need for health care workers is smart.

According to the University of New England, which is home to the state’s only medical school, between 75 percent and 80 percent of the university’s medical students who completed their residency in Maine have remained in the state to practice. However, because of a lack of training opportunities, about half of the university’s third-year medical students go out of state to complete their training.

If more of those students could complete their training in Maine, they would be likely to work in Maine. Many young doctors remain close to the communities where they completed their residency, a final step in medical education. In testimony in support of LD 1797, James Jarvis, the medical director of clinical education at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center, cited research that found that half of physicians practice within 100 miles of where they trained.

This legislation isn’t going to solve Maine’s health care workforce problems, but funding it is an important piece of the puzzle to help ensure doctors, nurses and other health care providers are available for the Mainers who need them where they need them.

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...