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From the archives 2020

Pa. eases rules for health care workers, others as coronavirus crisis reveals ‘inflexibility’ in professional licensing

by Sara Simon of Spotlight PA |

Many of the regulations recently loosened by Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration aim to help nurses and doctors.
TIM TAI / Philadelphia Inquirer

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HARRISBURG — In an effort to boost the number of health care professionals on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak, Pennsylvania is chipping away at the bureaucratic barriers imposed on many of the state’s licensed workers.

But two state senators say that broader, more sweeping changes — like limiting which criminal convictions are considered disqualifying — are needed to tackle dual crises: the virus and the impending economic downturn.

Many of the regulations recently loosened by Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration aim to help nurses and doctors. The state is easing the process for retirees to reactivate their licenses, expediting applications from people already licensed in other states, and delaying the due dates of regular renewal fees that professionals must pay.

Postponed renewals are likely the biggest regulatory win for the state’s roughly 276,500 registered and practical nurses. In September, Spotlight PA reported that 68 nursing board licensing fees had recently been imposed or increased, and that nurses had faced frustrating attitudes and logjams when interacting with the board.

Other rule changes are meant to address the staggering rates of unemployment in industries that have temporarily closed. Barbers, along with some hair stylists and nail technicians — all currently out of work because of Wolf’s shutdown of businesses that aren’t “life-sustaining” — now have an extra 90 days to pay upcoming licensing dues.

But some legislators question whether temporary relief is enough.

Sen. John DiSanto (R., Dauphin) and Sen. Judy Schwank (D., Berks) introduced a bill last spring that would reduce barriers for people who have old or irrelevant criminal histories when applying for professional licenses.

“More needs to be done,” DiSanto said in a statement. “Combatting COVID-19 is an all-hands-on-deck situation and it is unfortunate that barriers to occupational licensing prohibit otherwise skilled and qualified professionals from working to save lives.”

Schwank said the bill is especially relevant now, as the state prepares to get people back to work. “It will make sure the regulations are published, that they’re fair,” she said.

The bill passed the Senate unanimously in November and is awaiting consideration in the House Judiciary Committee.

Lyndsay Kensinger, press secretary for Wolf, said in a statement that the governor is supportive of the bill but that it “won’t help address the immediate need to add health care practitioners.”

Kensinger also said the temporary relief offered so far — like waiving fees for retired professionals who want to get back to work — is already paying off. On Saturday, the governor said that 119 medical professionals have applied to reactivate lapsed licenses over the past three weeks.

More temporary waivers are in the works, said Wanda Murren, a spokesperson for the Department of State, which oversees 29 professional licensing boards and commissions. Murren said staff is working nonstop to research and vet new regulatory changes — changes that typically take between 18 to 24 months to enact, she said.

The administration is empowered to make these changes under Wolf’s March 6 emergency declaration, which allows the governor’s office to suspend regulations if “strict compliance” would “prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action in coping with the emergency.”

As for broader regulatory changes, the coronavirus pandemic is almost certain to reignite the conversation, said Alanna Wilson of the Knee Center for the Study of Occupational Regulation at Saint Francis University near Altoona.

The center is actively involved in studying how states across the country are managing emergency regulations, and so far, she said, research is revealing “the inflexibility of licensing regulations to respond to dire needs of crisis.”

“I just can’t see this going away,” Wilson said. “I think this is going to be a bigger conversation.”

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