On Friday, Gov. Tony Evers issued an order relaxing a range of rules governing Wisconsin’s health care workforce in an effort to maximize the number of doctors, nurses and physician assistants available to help during the pandemic. Here he is seen delivering his State of the State address on January 22, in the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch
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Gov. Tony Evers issued an order Friday relaxing a range of rules governing Wisconsin’s health care workforce — an effort to maximize the number of doctors, nurses and physician assistants available to help during the all-hands-on-deck coronavirus pandemic. 

“Our healthcare professionals are on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, and it is critical that we maximize the size of our work force and eliminate unnecessary barriers so we can effectively meet the demand for care,” Evers said in a statement

On Friday, Gov. Tony Evers issued an order relaxing a range of rules governing Wisconsin’s health care workforce in an effort to maximize the number of doctors, nurses and physician assistants available to help during the pandemic. He is seen here delivering his State of the State address on January 22, in the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

The order comes two days after Wisconsin Watch and Wisconsin Public Radio reported on restrictions that the state’s 2,750-plus physician assistants said prevented some from lending their skills. The changes will remain in effect for the duration of the Public Health Emergency that Evers declared on March 12.

Physician assistants — often called PAs — are a type of advanced practice provider, a category that also includes nurse practitioners. They may act like physicians in many respects, prescribing medications, managing treatment plans and making diagnoses. 

Friday’s order, also signed by Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm, relaxed several rules that they flagged as barriers. 

The order gives PAs more flexibility in setting their “scope of practice” — allowing them to practice in areas of medicine that match their experience and expertise, even if their supervising physician works in another field. Additionally, physicians may now supervise up to eight PAs, rather than four. 

Wisconsin PAs have long called for changes to such regulations — which they say are more restrictive than many states — but the pandemic added urgency to their requests.

The order affects other health care workers, too. Among other provisions, it simplifies license renewals during the state’s emergency and encourages recent retirees with expired licenses to re-enter the practice. And it allows licensed out-of-state physicians to more easily practice in Wisconsin. 

The order adjusts clinical education requirements for nursing students who are close to graduation, allowing them to begin practicing sooner to respond to the pandemic. The governor also suspended practice restrictions for advanced practice nurses, who can diagnose and treat certain health problems, “enabling them to more efficiently and effectively respond during the COVID-19 crisis,” according to Evers’ office. 

Jamie Silkey, is a physician assistant in orthopedic surgery in Milwaukee’s Froedtert & Medical College of Wisconsin regional health network. Courtesy of Jamie Silkey

“This is extremely timely as we prepare for patient surges compounded with anticipated health care workforce illnesses and quarantines,” said Jamie Silkey, a physician assistant and assistant director for advanced practice providers at Milwaukee’s Froedtert & Medical College of Wisconsin regional health network.

“This will help alleviate the administrative burden and regulatory barriers that were making redeployment of PAs more challenging,” Silkey said.

Julie Doyle, president of the Wisconsin Academy of Physician Assistants, praised the move. 

“The COVID crisis has glaringly brought to light the restrictive nature of PA practice laws,  providing proof that current regulations prevent PAs from providing needed care and exclude PAs from employment opportunities,” Doyle said. 

She added that the academy will “continue to work to remove unnecessary administrative burdens uniquely faced by PAs in this state.”

Said Evers: “Remember, while our health systems respond to COVID-19, they also must continue to care for patients with other conditions and issues, such as cancer or accidental injury, that require ongoing or immediate attention. This action will ensure that more Wisconsinites get the care they need, when they need it.” 

This story comes from a partnership of Wisconsin Watch and Wisconsin Public Radio. Bram Sable-Smith is WPR’s Mike Simonson Memorial Investigative Fellow embedded in the newsroom of Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org), which collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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Jim Malewitz / Wisconsin Watch

Jim Malewitz joined the Center in 2019 as investigations editor. His role includes editing, managing fellows and interns, facilitating cross-newsroom collaborations and investigative reporting. Jim has worked almost exclusively in nonprofit, public affairs journalism. He most recently reported on the environment for Bridge Magazine in his home state of Michigan, following four years as an energy and investigative reporter for the Texas Tribune. Jim previously covered energy and the environment for Stateline, a nonprofit news service in Washington, D.C. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, POLITICO Magazine and newspapers across the country. Jim majored in political science at Grinnell College in Iowa and holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Iowa. There, he was a founding staff member of the nonprofit Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, where he serves on the board of directors.

Bram Sable-Smith / Wisconsin Watch

Bram Sable-Smith joined the Center in 2019 as the Wisconsin Public Radio Mike Simonson Memorial Investigative Reporting Fellow. Before moving to Wisconsin he spent five years reporting on health care at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri and as a founding reporter of Side Effects Public Media, a public media reporting collaborative in the Midwest. He also taught radio journalism at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Bram’s contributed stories to National Public Radio’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, American Public Media’s Marketplace and Kaiser Health News. His reporting has received two national Edward R. Murrow awards, two national Sigma Delta Chi awards, a health policy award from the Association of Health Care Journalists among others. Bram is a proficient Spanish speaker and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis.