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Why a hospital in an Idaho resort town is building employee housing

St. Luke's Wood River hospital in Ketchum.
St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center
St. Luke's Wood River in Ketchum

Idaho hospitals are struggling to find enough staff in the latest pandemic surge. For health care facilities in expensive tourist areas, housing is the biggest challenge to finding new staff, according to administrators.

In a new effort to attract workers, St. Luke’s Wood River in Ketchum broke ground earlier this week on four houses for employees. They're located in Hailey, the city to the south.

The hospital currently has 69 job openings and about 30% of them are for nurses, said Carmen Jacobsen, the chief operating officer.

“On average we see about 2-3 declinations for every offer, or every candidate we’re able to secure," she said.

Candidates are saying ‘no’ most often because of the lack of affordable housing in the area.

The staff shortage would be significant any year, but it's especially impactful now. St. Luke's and even its smallest facilities are under crisis standards of care, and resources are being stretched to the limits.

St. Luke's has been aware of the local affordability problem for at least a few years, but the housing crunch was made worse by the pandemic real estate boom in Idaho. The median Blaine County residential sale price went up 30% in the first half of 2020, compared to a year earlier.

Now, several traveling nurses camp out in RVs in the hospital parking lot. Some existing employees were forced to move or commute from farther away.

“The houses they were renting or condos they were renting were being either sold or converted to a short-term rental," Jacobsen said.

The Ketchum hospital owns a handful of rentals nearby, but those are used to house short-term staff, or specialists practicing out of the Wood River hospital temporarily. The condos in Hailey will be the first hospital-owned long-term housing options.

In total, there will be 12 employee housing units built in the next year; eight in Hailey and four in Bellevue. The hospital, the St. Luke's Wood River Foundation and ARCH, a community housing trust, are working together on the project. ARCH owns the land and will mange the properties, and St. Luke's will determine the employee eligibility.

Lack of affordable housing options is also affecting St. Luke’s McCall, according to the Star-News. Almost half of potential employees there are turning down offers, mostly because of housing. As a result, nurses are sometimes the ones cleaning patient rooms, and certain specialty services are happening more intermittently.

Correction: This story originally referred to the employee houses as condos.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen 

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