State panel sets aside $50 million health care worker pay

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Gov. Laura Kelly and legislative leaders on Friday agreed to earmark up to $50 million for boosting pay for roughly 20,000 front-line health care workers under duress as they fight through another wave of COVID-19.

The State Finance Council voted to set aside the federal money, but new spending guidelines will be developed as early as next week.

Those limits could include barring hospitals from imposing “counterproductive mandates” such as vaccine requirements that could lead to employees being fired.

“Facilities would only be eligible for these dollars if they’re not instituting counterproductive policies and mandates that also make it harder to staff these beds,” Senate President Ty Masterson said Friday.

Masterson’s spokesman said those “counterproductive policies” would include vaccine mandates that hospitals across  Kansas such as Ascension Via Christi, the University of Kansas Health System and Stormont Vail are implementing. Lawrence Memorial Hospital, too, is now requiring vaccines.

Masterson acknowledged that the capacity issues hospitals face are “real,” but warned about taking action that would cost them the very employees they need.

“It would be fiscally irresponsible to allocate taxpayer dollars to address an issue that is being exacerbated by counterproductive mandates that will result in health care workers being terminated who have been at the front lines since the beginning of the pandemic,” Masterson said in a statement later Friday.

Masterson said hospitals could still qualify for the funding, but they need to accept alternatives to vaccines such as “robust” testing or “recognizing natural immunity from those who have previously contracted COVID-19.”

During the State Finance Council meeting, Masterson left open what a “counterproductive policy” might be.

“I don’t know that’s been fully determined,” Masterson said.

“It’s going to encompass more than what I think some are anticipating it will,” he said,  “or maybe less.”

The plan for health worker pay was first outlined at a meeting of special task force known as SPARK, short for Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas.

Wichita businessman and task force member Jon Rolph laid out the proposal, which federal rules limited to increases of no more than $13 an hour or $25,000 a year.

The program would have paid an average of $5,000 per worker although that was not guaranteed since the hospitals would have the discretion to split up the money.

Hospitals are seeking the money to help relieve overburdened intensive care units that are facing staffing shortages with the rise in COVID-19 cases as the delta variants spread and a reluctance among many to get vaccinated.

As of Thursday, 27% of the state’s 1,137 intensive care beds were available.

“There is a burnout factor where people have been through this once,” Rolph said in addressing the staffing crisis facing hospitals.

“They’re worried about the energy it will take to go through this a second time.”

The staffing problems can be traced to health care workers who have become beleaguered dealing with wave after wave of COVID patients and are now retiring or  leaving for less intensive health care jobs.

“Our hospital workers are emotionally drained over the last 18 months,” said Chad Austin, president and CEO for the Kansas Hospital Association.

“We went through a period of time where we thought we were getting past much of the COVID 19 pandemic,” Austin said.

“We thought we saw light at the end of the tunnel.

“This most recent surge has created some PTSD, I would say, for many of our health care workers in terms of dealing with the pandemic,” he said.

Kevin Strecker, president and chief operating officer at Ascension Via Christi, echoed Austin’s assessment of the situation facing hospitals.

“The first COVID spike that we experienced back in October, November and December was very hard on the staff,” he said.

Strecker said Via Christi’s Wichita hospital has seen 1,300 deaths so far this year, up from 850 deaths in a more typical year.

He said the spike in deaths has taken a toll on the hospital, which he said led to a “sizeable” exodus of employees from all health care disciplines, including nurses.

He said the hospital now employs 140 contract nurses but it is still 100 nurses short.

“Right now, we’re pushing our staff very hard to pick up additional patients,” he said.

“It’s doable for a short period of time. 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.”