Kansas officials plan to allocate $50 million in federal COVID-19 aid to boost the salaries of registered nurses and other frontline workers at understaffed hospitals.
The program is a response to severe staffing problems in ICUs overwhelmed by the latest surge in COVID-19 cases, which is attributed to the highly infectious delta variant and unvaccinated residents.
Funding would be allocated to hospitals based on licensed bed capacity and the number of nurses needed to fill those beds. On average, the program would provide a $5,000 pay increase for each nurse, but hospitals would decide how to divide the funds. The $50 million includes $800,000 for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to administer the program.
Jeff Bowman, CEO of SCK Health in Arkansas City, said he appreciates the plan to aid front-line workers.
“Once we know the requirements and amount, SCK Health will produce a plan to distribute the funds in salary increases, retention bonuses and other approved methods to our employees that have and continue to serve our community,” Bowman said.
Members of Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration presented the plan during a meeting Friday of the Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas Taskforce, which recommends how to spend federal pandemic relief money. In a separate meeting, the State Finance Council approved the plan with the caveat that SPARK will meet again next week to determine how the money should be distributed.
Senate President Ty Masterson, a member of both panels, said the follow-up meeting is necessary to establish “guardrails” for the program. He said hospitals should only be eligible for funding “if they’re not instituting counterproductive policies and mandates that also make it harder to staff these beds.” That includes vaccine mandates, he said.
The state’s largest health systems and hospitals have announced they will require employees to be vaccinated from COVID-19, now that federal authorities have given full approval to the Pfizer vaccine. House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins said he had received correspondence from nurses who are “absolutely fuming” that they have to choose between losing their job or taking a free, safe and effective vaccine.
Jon Rolph, a SPARK taskforce member appointed by Kelly, said there is almost no ICU capacity at any of the top-tier hospitals in Kansas. Rural hospitals are unable to transfer patients to hospitals with more ability to provide acute cure, he said.
Last month, Rolph said, a McPherson man who suffered problems with a routine surgery died after waiting for three days for space to become available in an acute care center.
Rolph said hospitals have enough beds to handle the latest surge in COVID-19 cases. The problem is they don’t have enough nurses to attend those beds. Many have burned out after previous waves of COVID-19, either leaving the industry or opting for early retirement. Traveling nurses who filled gaps during earlier waves are now seeking employment in the South, where pay is higher and outbreaks are more severe.
In Kansas, KDHE reported 49 more deaths from COVID-19 between Wednesday and Friday, along with 111 new hospitalizations.
Kevin Strecker, president and COO at Via Christi Health, said nurses have PTSD from last year’s battles with COVID-19. In a normal year, he said, the organization’s Wichita hospital would record 850 deaths from all kinds of disease and injury. So far this year, there have been 1,300 deaths.
Strecker said his health system saw a mass exodus of nurses into retirement, as well as some who left acute care. The Wichita hospital currently is using 140 contract nurses, he said, but it is still 100 nurses short.
The standard ratios call for nurses to attend six beds each, or two beds in an ICU. Strecker said Via Christi is pushing nurses to take additional patients.
“It’s doable for a short period of time,” he said. “It tires people out, and then the turnover becomes even a bigger problem. And from a quality standpoint, it’s not something you want to do long term.”
Greg Orman, a member of the SPARK committee who ran for governor as an independent candidate in 2018, questioned the value of using pay increases to retain staff. He said he would prefer to allocate money to hospitals and give them more flexibility in how they used the money.
Orman referenced his work as a business consultant in addressing staffing shortages.
“Premium pay is not the only lever that can be pulled,” Orman said. “In fact, we generally try to shy away from that because there’s, as you know, wage price inflexibility. And when you raise someone’s base pay, it’s awfully hard to ultimately change that if you get into an environment with different conditions.”
CourierTraveler Publisher David A. Seaton contributed to this report.