Thousands of healthcare professionals, including therapists, pharmacists, and nurses, are anxiously waiting to start working in their respective fields, but the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services has been slow to process their license applications. Providers and administrators have criticized the agency for what they see as incompetence, but the DSPS says it need more funding to adequately staff the agency. The delays couldn’t come at a worse time. The state is grappling with a severe nurse shortage, but these providers can’t join the ranks until they are properly licensed.
After earning a master’s degree in occupational therapy, Gabriel Thomson is anxious to put his skills to good use.
“I feel like I’ve been working really hard and looking forward to when I can do this job,” said Thomson.
He secured a position in pediatrics in July, but he had to miss his first day of work because he didn’t have a state license.
“I have to stay home. Unpaid. Not working,” Thomson said at the time.
He submitted his program test scores to the agency soon after he graduated, but he would have to wait several weeks to start working.
“I want to serve the people of the community,” said Thomson.
The DSPS oversees professional licensure for 240 occupations in Wisconsin. Officials across the medical field have complained about the delays since last year.
“We’ve been getting emails and calls from individuals and from clinics [about delays],” said Nicole Boyington, president of Wisconsin Occupational Therapy Association (WOTA).
Boyington says the agency has been behind for years, but the pandemic made the problem much worse. Members of the WOTA are now waiting six to nine months to receive their licenses.
“We lose good therapists because they move out of state,” said Boyington. “[They] go to another state where they can get licensed and get a job.”
The Pharmacy Society of Wisconsin has reported similar problems. The organization says 165 members have reached out regarding licensing delays this year alone.
“While DSPS has been responsive to our outreach when specific cases are identified, the systemic licensure delays and issues do not appear to be abating,” says Danielle Womack, the association’s vice-president.
The shortage of workers has forced pharmacies across the state to restrict their hours of operation.
The DSPS recently switched to an online application process in May, a move that was designed to improve efficiency. The agency also recently expanded its call center to respond to the growing number of complaints.
But the delays are affecting patient care up and down the state.
Mark Herstand, executive director of the Wisconsin Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, has heard his fair share of horror stories of social workers waiting months to start work.
“At a time when there’s a great increase in need for mental health services, there’s a shortage of providers,” said Herstand. However, he understands the challenges the agency is facing.
“Long-term, they have to be given the authority to hire the staff that they need,” said Herstand of DSPS. “It’s not humanly possible to do a competent, professional job if you’re completely overwhelmed by the workload.”
DSPS processes around 13,000 license applications a month. The agency declined to specify how many professionals are currently waiting for approval.
Three nurses at Door County Medical Center say they have been waiting for their licenses since May.
“In all three cases, these are experienced nurses from out of state who are simply waiting for their paperwork to go through to begin practicing in Wisconsin,” Brian Stephens, chief executive officer of Door County Medical Center, wrote in a recent letter to Gov. Tony Evers.
State Sen. Alberta Darling has been pushing DSPS executive Dan Hereth to explain what is causing the delays. She recently wrote a letter to Hereth outlining her concerns.
“Everyone from plumbers to psychiatrists needs to have their licenses approved by DSPS. Without state-approved licenses, people can’t work,” Darling wrote. “They wait on hold for hours and end up getting dumped to voicemail. Often their checks were cashed months before they received an answer on why their license was still on hold. This is unacceptable.”
The DSPS says the average wait time is down to 46 days, compared to 76 days from 2016 to 2021. The agency is requesting more funding from the state to keep up with the influx of new healthcare workers.
Thompson recently started working after waiting 39 days to receive his license.
“The new job is great, I really like it,” said Thomson.