CCMH administrators are taking steps to avoid rising prices in hiring traveling nurses.
CCMH administrators are taking steps to avoid rising prices in hiring traveling nurses.

LAWTON — Comanche County Memorial Hospital is refusing to pay exorbitant hourly rates for travel nurses who care for COVID-19 patients, a hospital administrator said.

Melissa Alvillar, the hospital’s director of nursing, said about half of the temporary nursing agencies nationwide are charging hospitals more than twice the hourly rate since the pandemic hit the United States last year. Alvillar labeled the increase in hourly rates “price gouging” by the agencies which are keeping a majority of the increased fee. Instead of using agencies to supplement the nursing staff, CCMH is paying its critical care nurses more money to pick up additional shifts.

“We’re taking care of our own staff,” Alvillar said. “The agencies are up-charging us for taking care of COVID patients with the nurses being guaranteed a set number of hours at a certain rate.” Agencies currently are charging as much as $175 to $200 an hour for critical care nurses, Alvillar said. Prior to the pandemic, those same nurses may have been paid as much as $75 an hour, the nursing director added.

As of press time, calls to three Oklahoma City nursing staffing agencies and another agency in Ardmore were not returned for comment. “The agencies are definitely making out on this pandemic,” Alvillar said. “But we (CCMH) won’t pay those higher prices. That doesn’t mean bigger hospitals won’t pay it. Nurses are in demand and some hospitals will pay the higher rate.”

Some travel nurses who care for COVID patients are taking home $5,000 to $6,000 a week, Alvillar said. “How do you say no to that?” she asked of the travel nurses. “Some of them have husbands who have been out of work since the pandemic started and this was the answer to their problems. The problem isn’t with the nurses. It’s the agencies and the price gouging that hurts nursing nationwide.”

Eight nurses from CCMH left the hospital to become travel nurses because they could make as much as $6,000 a week in bigger markets, Alvillar said. Alex Gerszewski, communications director for Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, said the AG’s office has not received reports of price gouging by staffing agencies. However, state law specifies that businesses who engage in the sale of products or services cannot charge more than 10% extra after a public emergency, such as a tornado or pandemic, occurs.

The state’s price gouging statute went into effect statewide following President Donald Trump’s emergency declaration regarding COVID-19 last year. The statute is automatically triggered after the issuance of a state or federal emergency declaration. Attorney General Hunter said the statute allows his office to pursue charges against individuals or businesses that engage in price gouging.

“Scam artists routinely prey on individuals’ emotions during times of fear and crisis,” said Hunter. “I encourage Oklahomans to remain calm but cautious during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Don’t pay inflated prices for things like hand sanitizer, paper towels or other products and services that are becoming sparse. If anyone encounters price gouging, fraudulent charities or other crimes related to deceptive business practices, contact my office where we will not hesitate to prosecute in order to shut these operations down to protect our citizens.”

Hospital administrators who believe they have been victims of price-gouging should contact the attorney general’s office, Gerszewski said. After a complaint is filed, attorneys will begin researching the applicable law to determine if the agencies have violated the statute, known as the Emergency Price Stabilization Act.

Reuters reported in March 2020 that some hospital administrators nationwide likened the pay increases to the kind of price-gouging that is illegal in some states, such as Oklahoma, during times of public emergencies.

Meanwhile, Patti Davis, president of the Oklahoma Hospital Association, said she was aware that agencies were charging hospitals higher prices but defended the increase due to supply and demand.

“It’s very competitive right now,” she said in reference to nurses. “They’re charging more but I haven't heard anything about price gouging. We do have staffing agencies who are charging more.”

Davis declined to talk about the ethics involved with agencies charging hospitals higher rates for COVID nurses. “We’re a trade association, not a regulatory agency so I won’t talk about the ethical issue,” she stated.