Albany Med Health System CEO Dennis McKenna says health care officials are facing a multitude of challenges, including COVID-19, the flu and RSV.

But finding staff to care for patients outweighs them all, he said on Wednesday at a news conference flanked by state lawmakers. 

"While those certainly remain issues that necessitate attention and focus by public health officials and hospitals and health care providers, they pale in comparison to the biggest issue and that is staffing," he said.

Nearly three years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and upstate New York hospitals are facing a deepening staffing crisis. The Iroquois Healthcare Alliance in a survey highlighted how widespread the problem is for providers: 88% of providers in their network reported operating at a negative or razor-thin operating margin. 

Staffing troubles have been blamed on a variety of factors: COVID-19 vaccination mandates, burnout from health care workers who have struggled with the stresses of the pandemic and the "great resignation" that affected nearly all sectors of the economy since 2020. 

McKenna, along with hospital offiicals and Democratic lawmakers from around New York, on Wendesday pointed to the growing staffing crisis in hospitals, nursing homes and health care facilities in the wake of the pandemic. For patients, the problem will translate into longer wait times for care.

"It makes it significantly more difficult for us to take that patient in transfer because our emergency department has 40, 60 people in our waiting room," McKenna said. 

Lawmakers want to tackle the problem in the coming state budget. That includes the creation of a workforce development program meant to boost health care staffing. 

"There's no farm club out there," said state Assemblyman John McDonald. "There's no farm club bringing up the next generation of nurses."

Gov. Kathy Hochul has acknowledged the problem, which has translated into a staffed bed shortage during critical times. Last year, public health officials anxiously watched the rise in COVID-related hospitalizations during a spike brought on by the omicron variant of COVID-19. 

Hochul in her first budget included money for health care worker bonuses and sought a four-year plan to encourage more people to become nurses. 

But lawmakers are urging Hochul to go furhter next year and include funding in the budget to encourage more people to become nurses and to also boost their pay. 

"We have to be able to pay nurses who are already there so we can retain them and we have to be able to pay nurses to come to our hospitals," said state Assemblyman Harry Bronson. 

But that will take money to aid upstate health care networks into the next year. 

"Part of doing so means that we have state funding to make sure our hospitals and our nursing homes can operate in a way that are providing the highest level of care," Bronson said.