NEW RICHMOND - Labor shortages, pay disparities with Minnesota and testing hurdles were among issues raised Monday by western Wisconsin nursing home officials and educators.

Sen. Patty Schachtner, D-Somerset, and Department of Workforce Development Secretary Caleb Frostman met June 3 with about 20 officials who discussed struggles facing the certified nursing assistant (CNA) profession, which largely tends to nursing home residents.

Schachtner said moving her father to a nursing home has put the issue in her face. She said the first people she consults about her father's well-being are the CNAs.

They become like family during the process, Schachtner told the group, saying the job is more than "wiping butts."

"It's about creating relationships and creating a safe environment for our aging population," she said.

Schachtner is one of several western Wisconsin lawmakers who have signed onto legislation seeking to reduce CNA training requirements in Wisconsin from 120 hours to the federal minimum, 75 hours. Reps. Shannon Zimmerman, R-River Falls, Rob Stafsholt, R-New Richmond, Gae Maginfici, R-Dresser, and Warren Petryk, R-Eleva, are also among the bill's cosponsors.

Critics of the current mandate have said it's especially impactful in western Wisconsin. Job opportunities in nearby Minnesota beckon, where training-hour requirements are fewer and nursing home wages are often higher.

Nearly every hand shot in the air when Schachtner asked attendees if their facility had a labor shortage. One attendee said she could fill up to five positions on her afternoon shift alone in Baldwin.

Schachtner and Frostman also heard Monday how CNA students sometimes have to drive several hours to a facility to complete testing. Schachtner said she was struck by learning about prospective CNAs who have to wait months after their training to take the test.

"That causes a barrier," she said.

Both Frostman and Schachtner advocated at the meeting for Wisconsin to accept federal Medicaid dollars, a key portion of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' budget. Frostman said it was "startling" to learn that, in some nursing homes, 70% of residents are Medicaid-eligible.

"That was mind-blowing to me," he said.

The roundtable coincided with an Evers announcement calling for a partnership between the Department of Health Services and the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance. According to the announcement, the plan would use Medicaid expansion funds to pay for enrolling more people in private health insurance or through Medicaid.

Republican legislative leaders have opposed the Democratic governor's call for Medicaid expansion on the grounds that it would put more people on government welfare.

Joint Finance Committee Co-chairman John Nygren on Monday reiterated that stance in a statement, though he indicated support for Evers' plan to cover more people and put them on private insurance.

"Instead of forcing individuals into government run health care, we should prioritize connecting those who qualify for this highly subsidized health care that they already are eligible for," Nygren said in a statement tweeted by an Associated Press reporter.

Schachtner said there is no indication yet that legislative Republicans have developed an appetite for Medicaid expansion, though she said "I always have hope."

"It's the third leg of the budget," she said. "Doing nothing is not the solution."