Nonprofit Networks Supply Travel Nurses to Rural Montana

by Candi Helseth

Carla McCune

Carla McCune, who works as a travel nurse at three different rural hospitals for Monida Healthcare Network in western Montana, says she enjoys the challenge and variety of her work.

Two nonprofit ventures in Montana are proving that bigger isn’t necessarily better, especially when it comes to rural nursing staff needs. The Montana Health Network (MHN), serving eastern Montana, began offering a travel nurse staffing program in 2006 and Monida Healthcare Network in western Montana followed suit a year later.

Travel nurse companies and recruiters place nurses in temporary positions, often in large city hospitals. While rural Montana facilities can fill temporary nursing slots using large travel nurse organizations, local travel nurses are more likely to understand the rural environment and are often available for shorter time frames than those centered in urban environments.

Jill Domek, Vice President of Aging Services for two nursing homes in Glendive, Mont., says that MHN nurses provide a greater consistency of care. Having the same nurses return reduces staff’s time spent orientating temporary staff.

For Carla McCune, a registered nurse who is also certified in public health nursing, being a travel nurse with Monida offers challenges and rewards she was no longer finding in her 20 years working as a nurse in large, full-service hospitals. McCune, who lives in Missoula, Mont., travels up to 160 miles round trip to assignments at three critical access hospitals (CAHs) in western Montana.

“The beauty of being a travel nurse is that I can care for patients and not become embroiled in any hospital politics,” she said. “It’s given me a chance to experience a different aspect of nursing, that of rural nursing in a CAH environment. I always look forward to my next shift.”

Many nurses working for national travel agencies refuse rural assignments, said Amber Rogers, Monida director of clinical services. Additionally, national agencies generally ask hospitals for a 13-week commitment. That can be a financial drain for a rural hospital that only needs a nurse to fill a spot for a much shorter period.

“Basically every nurse in a small town already works for the hospital so when nurses leave for vacation or educational workshops, it’s tough to find staff to cover their absence,” Rogers said. “That’s where we come into play. We try to be a matchmaker essentially. We look at the skills of the nurses we have and what the hospital needs from that travel assignment.”

Six clinics and CAHs with an average daily census of one to 10 patients in seven western Montana counties are members of the Monida network. Montana Health Network serves 17 hospitals in eastern Montana; three are frontier hospitals and all are CAHs, with the exception of one at Billings. The two networks provide a variety of services, including travel nurses, which improve efficiencies and reduce costs for member facilities.

Under the temporary staffing program, the networks each employ 20 to 30 nurses. The travel nurses live in Montana and North Dakota. The networks are responsible for background checks, nurse education, assignment coordination and paying nurses’ salaries. Temporary staffing services are offered to member and non-member hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities and physician offices.

“We’ve also implemented a mobile educational unit so we can teach nurses on-site rather than their having to leave their facility to travel for education,” said Chris Hopkins, MHN vice president of strategy and business development. “That helps reduce staffing issues too.”

Members in the networks can still use national agencies when they choose. They receive a discount or rebate using the MHN staffing programs. MHN used in-house funding to start their program; Monida funded their program through a HRSA Network Development grant that ended April 30th. Both programs are self-sustaining now.

For more information, contact:

Chris Hopkins
VP Strategy and Business Development
Montana Health Network
11 South 7th St. Suite 241
Miles City, MT 59301

Amber Rogers
Director of Clinical Services
Monida Healthcare Network
3700 S. Russell, Suite 108
Missoula, MT 59801

Back to: Spring 2010 Issue