As Kansas officials eye bonus program for nurses, GOP leader threatens funds at facilities with vaccine mandates

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Officials charged with appropriating Kansas' share of federal COVID-19 aid approved Friday using up to $50 million to boost pay for nurses and frontline health care workers amid a rise in cases, including at Stormont Vail Hospital, pictured here.

Lawmakers approved Friday a plan that would set aside up to $50 million of Kansas' federal COVID-19 aid to boost pay for nurses and frontline health care workers grappling with a rise of virus cases across the state.

But Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said in a meeting he doesn't want to the funds going to facilities with "counterproductive" mandates, a comment his spokesperson later confirmed was a reference to vaccine requirements put in place by a number of hospitals throughout the state.

Such a move would potentially disqualify three of the state's largest health systems — Ascension Via Christ, the University of Kansas Health System and Stormont Vail — from accessing the money.

More:Stormont Vail Health to require its employees be vaccinated against COVID-19. Here's what that means.

In a statement from Masterson, he clarified that hospitals wouldn't be barred from the funds if they "simply adjust their policies to allow alternatives to the counterproductive mandates — such as a robust testing option or recognizing natural immunity from those who have previously contracted COVID-19.”

"The hospital systems have identified a severe staffing capacity issue and are asking for up to $50 million in taxpayer dollars to address it," Masterson said in the statement. "This concern is real, and our primary goal should be to maximize capacity by ensuring that every available bed is staffed. Therefore, 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."

Officials will meet next week to sort out the finer details of the program — including any restrictions on eligibility.

More:Inside Stormont Vail's ICU as COVID cases surge: Patients are younger, 80% unvaccinated

Pay designed to boost COVID-19 response ahead of winter months 

But there was broad bipartisan agreement on the need for using the state’s share of American Rescue Plan funds to attempt a counter-offensive against the rising number of nurses and other staff leaving Kansas hospitals. The trend has left some hospitals with open beds they are often unable to staff.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported an increase of 3,952 cases since Wednesday.  Agency data also shows 27% of intensive care beds available statewide, although that number is only 10% in northeast Kansas.

That is on top of the peak in cases seen last year. Kevin Strecker, chief operating officer at Ascension Via Christi, noted that the system’s flagship hospital in Wichita usually sees 850 deaths a year. So far this year that number has risen to over 1,300.

“That has taken a toll on them,” Strecker said. "As a result of that we did see a pretty sizable exodus of not only nurses but all disciplines in the hospital."

Some workers have retired early or going to a less draining sector of the health care world. Others have moved to work as traveling nurses — an ironic blow, as Kansas hospitals have been increasingly forced to lean on those firms to fill in shortages, paying higher rates in the process.

Strecker said the future is uncertain as well, citing data from the Kansas Board of Regents that enrollment in nursing and health care programs have also declined.

“Our pipeline isn't very strong,” he said.

Details of the program remain uncertain

While full details of the new program aren't yet certain, it would distribute the funds to hospitals across the state, urban and rural alike, based on their stated bed capacity. Facilities could give workers up to $13-per-hour in premium pay, with a yearly cap on the bonuses of $25,000 per employee.

It makes use of provisions in ARPA specifically allowing Kansas to use its $1.6 billion in aid to go towards things like premium pay for frontline workers. But the specifics of the program would likely be shaped by the stringent federal guidelines, released by the U.S. Treasury Department earlier this year.

This frustrated some members of the committee, who wanted to ensure that hospitals were given maximum flexibility to craft a strategy to keep their employees around. Others were miffed that as much as $1 million could be siphoned off for administrative costs, including pay for outside contractors.

More:Federal unemployment benefits, including $300 a week, end Saturday. Here's what to know in Kansas.

But Chad Austin, president of the Kansas Hospital Association, said time was of the essence in getting help for health care facilities.

Funds in the CARES Act, passed by Congress in March 2020, were available specifically for hospitals to boost employee pay.

But larger facilities exhausted that pot of money some time ago. And rural, critical-access hospitals who still had dollars left over were unable to spend them, starting June 1.

"We are in a lull in terms of resources to sustain the premium pay we've seen over the last 18 months," Austin said.