SHERIDAN — The Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee began exploring how to address a rising need for health care workers in Wyoming, a need that some local medical providers say extends to Sheridan.

While medical professionals from a range of disciplines have expressed a need for more providers, medical centers in general are experiencing an increasing demand for certified nursing assistants.

CNAs work under the direct supervision of registered nurses or licensed practical nurses and are often responsible for performing many of the everyday tasks vital to a medical center’s operations.

A CNA’s exact responsibilities depend on what kind of medical setting they work in, but Brookdale Sugarland Ridge Executive Director Tammy Yelton-Boone described CNAs as the foundation of her center’s services.

“Our CNAs are like our front line — they’re the ones giving the care, they’re the ones who are in the trenches doing the hard work,” Yelton-Boone said.

Green House Living for Sheridan Administrator Michelle Craig described CNA’s as similarly crucial to the care her organization provides.

“They are the ones who work with the elders day-to-day and can advocate for them,” Craig said.

The statewide CNA shortage partially reflects a set of obstacles that Wyoming employers face when recruiting regardless of the industry — the absence of major metropolitan areas, under-developed infrastructure and brutal winters, to name a few.

Local medical providers working to bring more CNAs to Sheridan have also encountered familiar issues, noting that some potential recruits would struggle to afford housing and the cost of living on a CNA’s salary. Craig said Green House pays new CNAs $14.25 per hour; and Sheridan Veterans Affairs Health Care System public affairs officer Kristina Miller said the VA pays its average CNA $16.53 per hour.

But some of the difficulties maintaining a CNA workforce are the result of challenges unique to the role.

Turnover is typically high among CNAs. Generally, working as a CNA is a step toward a career in the medical field — often as a registered nurse — rather than a career itself. As such, CNA positions are often filled by nursing students.

For students aiming to become registered nurses, the time they spend as a CNA is as much an apprenticeship as it is a job. In many cases, that means CNAs are looking to gain experience in many different settings — in an emergency room as well as a rehabilitation treatment program, for instance.

They’re incentivized, in other words, to move around, which makes retaining CNAs difficult, particularly for providers like Green House and Sugarland, as they provide a limited range of services to their patients.

CNAs targeting a long-term career in the medical field are encouraged to gain experience working in “acute care” environments — such as an emergency room — and senior homes do not administer acute care. With opportunities to work in acute care close by — at Sheridan Memorial Hospital and the VA — many of the CNAs the local senior centers hire quickly move on.

Sheridan VA Health Care System Associate Chief Nurse Lynette Clayton said CNAs moving to different roles poses challenges for the VA as well, though, and added that the VA is constantly looking to hire more nursing assistants. Though the VA has a broader range of treatment environments for CNAs to explore, when a CNA decides to move to a new setting, even within the VA, they still leave a vacancy. Clayton said Sheridan’s VA generally has the greatest demand for CNAs in its short-stay rehabilitation program and long-stay nursing home program; she noted, though, that those programs also require larger staffs than other VA services.

Staffing shortages in senior care programs could lead to a larger problem down the road. U.S. Census data indicates that Wyoming’s population is aging rapidly, a trend that could spark a surge in demand for senior services in the near future. Without CNAs to work the “front line” of those services, the state will struggle to meet that demand.

Sheridan has at least one notable advantage over other communities in the state, though, in that Sheridan College offers a certified nursing assistant course that prepares students to take on CNA roles with local providers

Significantly, Sheridan Memorial Hospital’s Director of Nursing Lacey Johnson said the hospital has not experienced the CNA shortage, which she attributed to local training programs.

Yet, those programs have not been able to produce a CNA workforce capable of meeting the local need beyond the hospital. Though Sheridan may train more CNAs than other Wyoming communities, it also has more medical providers. And, considering local providers haven’t had much luck recruiting out-of-state nursing assistants, Craig said all of those providers are essentially competing over the same labor force.

Legislative solutions to the state’s CNA shortage are still taking shape, but local medical providers are anxiously waiting to see if those solutions can address a growing need.