How do you attract 200 highly sought-after nurses after flex scheduling, signing bonuses and similar incentives haven’t sealed the deal?

West Virginia University Health System, a nonprofit that operates several hospitals in the Mountain State, including the teaching hospitals of West Virginia University, turned to free lodging to ensure that its newly expanded WVU Heart and Vascular Institute in Morgantown opened last year with a full complement of nurses. One floor and 44 rooms in a nearby West Virginia University dormitory were set aside for nurses who had to travel at least 60 miles, or 90 minutes, to Morgantown.

“We were putting the steel and the bricks out for our new [institute] tower, and it became clear that we needed to get some nurses in here if we were going to open on time,” says WVU Medicine-WVU Hospitals Vice President and Chief Nursing Officer Doug Mitchell. “Our goal was to attract nurses who may not have been able, or ready, to uproot and move to Morgantown.”

Operating out of a dorm used by graduate students, the Nursing Commuter Program enabled the WVU Heart and Vascular Institute to launch on schedule. Commuting nurses live in two- and four-bedroom suites that have common areas. Housekeeping duties are handled by West Virginia United Health System.

“We’ve become fairly expert at being innkeepers here,” said Mitchell, who has nearly 30 years of leadership experience in clinical nursing services. “Basically, we have an inn that has 100 percent occupancy. We have some pop-off [capacity] available in a local hotel.”

Initial concerns by some nurses that parking was too remote were addressed by establishing parking slots next to the dorm. An internet provider was replaced following complaints of a weak Wi-Fi signal. Mitchell acknowledges that on Saturdays when WVU’s football team is playing, the dorm “can be a little rowdy at times. We’ve been known to have a rowdy fan base when we win.”

But on the whole, the Nursing Commuter Program has been a hit with nurses traveling to Morgantown from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio and Virginia. It’s also been a hit with West Virginia United Health System for saving roughly $350,000 that would have gone to travel expenses for nurses on 12- and 13-week contracts.

The program is the brainchild of West Virginia United Health System President and CEO Albert Wright, who is mulling whether to extend the program beyond Morgantown.

“We would do it wherever it makes sense to do so, if we were having nursing shortages in other parts of the system,” Wright says of his nonprofit enterprise. “Morgantown as a community has seen a lot of growth, and our academic medical center has grown as a response to that.” He says that demand for the health system’s services is increasing across the state and throughout the region.

“It’s also true that nurses love the challenge of working at a big academic medical center but perhaps don't want to leave their homes or uproot families,” Wright says. “So this gives them a chance to work at WVU Medicine without leaving home permanently.”