Panel delays action on $50 million for health care pay

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A special task force that helps decide how federal COVID-19 relief money is spent has put off making a decision on whether to put $50 million into pay for nurses and other health care workers.

The committee on Monday rejected a proposal by Senate President Ty Masterson to keep the money from hospitals that mandate vaccines, describing it as a “counterproductive mandate” that could lead to employees being fired.

Masterson had said previously he thought that kind mandate could cost hospitals the very employees they need to staff the beds that are brimming at capacity because of the latest surge in COVID-19 cases.

Some members of the so-called SPARK task force – short for Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas – voiced concern about how Masterson’s proposal would affect hospital systems throughout the state that already mandate vaccines.

Wichita businessman Jon Rolph, the SPARK task force member who proposed the pay plan, noted that keeping the money from hospitals with vaccine mandates would affect 40% of the hospital beds across the state.

Ascension Via Christi, the University of Kansas Health System, Stormont Vail and Lawrence Memorial Hospital are requiring vaccines for their employees.

“I didn’t want this to become a political debate around vaccinations,” Rolph said.

“The idea was to get this to front-line workers to protect (hospital) capacity,” he said.

“We don’t want to tell private businesses what they should be doing with their policies inside of their business,” he said.

Masterson resisted the notion that he was trying to tell businesses how to operate.

“We would not be telling businesses what to do. This is not that situation,” he said.

“We’re not telling anybody what to do with their money. We’re saying what it means to be handed the people’s money,” Masterson said.

He added that hospitals would be making their own decisions whether to mandate vaccines in the context of receiving the federal relief money.

“This does not disqualify any institution,” Masterson said.

“They have time to review a policy and make some accommodation to keep these nurses on our front lines. This does not…in of itself disqualify any institution.”

House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr. also expressed reservations about Masterson’s vaccine proposal and ultimately sided against the idea.

He said he didn’t want to cut out nurses who work for the University of Kansas Health System, which is requiring workers to get vaccinate.

“A big chunk of our workforce is at KU Med right now,” Ryckman said.

“I don’t want to see them being punished if somehow they can’t participate in this program – whatever it is,” he said.

Hospitals would make the decision on how the money is spent, but increases are limited to no more than $13 an hour or $25,000 a year.

Ryckman expressed concern about the plan’s lack of clarity and suggested that hospital executives should have more flexibility about how the money would be spent.

He didn’t necessarily believe that the money should be designated only for premium pay for health care workers.

The health care community, Ryckman said, is looking for alternative ways to spend the money, not just a one-time pay boost.

“I’m concerned … that we’re not allowing the flexibility to our administrators, to work with our nurses to see what they want with how to spend this money,” he said.

At one point, Ryckman became worried the task force was losing focus.

“I don’t know what we’re trying to accomplish,” Ryckman said.

“I don’t know if we’re ready to have motions and substitute motions. It seems like we’re just going to come up with a process that no one really likes.

“If I was a nurse right or hospital exec right now, I would have no idea what you guys are talking about,” he said.

The task force named its three members from the private sector – Greg Orman, Bill Pickert and Rolph – to help develop a consensus proposal that will be discussed, and possibly voted on, as early as Friday.

The committee is charged with developing a proposal centered on Wednesday’s discussion, including looking at more flexible ways the money could be used rather than only focusing on bonuses for health care workers.