Kansas panel delays nurse pay boost, rejects punishment for vaccine requirement

By: - September 8, 2021 3:59 pm

Senate President Ty Masterson explains during a virtual meeting Wednesday of the SPARK taskforce that he didn’t want hospitals with vaccine mandates to be ineligible for funding for nurse pay. Instead, he proposed, hospitals should have to return funding for each nurse who quits. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Kansas panel tasked with determining how a $50 million boost in nurse pay should be distributed rejected an attempt Wednesday by Senate President Ty Masterson to claw back funds from hospitals that require employees to get a free, safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19.

Members of the Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas Taskforce, a seven-member panel of legislative leaders, businessmen and members of Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration, couldn’t agree on other parameters and delayed taking action to make the funds available to hospitals. The panel plans to meet again as soon as Friday.

Last week, the panel recommended the use of federal pandemic relief aid to address a chronic nursing shortage at Kansas hospitals. The number of patients needing critical care for COVID-19 surged with the rapid spread of the delta variant among unvaccinated residents, pushing hospitals to their capacity limits. Hospitals have the bed space but don’t have enough nurses to care for patients.

Masterson complained of news media coverage that accurately reported his comments last week, when he said hospitals that impose counterproductive policies, such as vaccine mandates, should not be eligible for the $50 million program. During Wednesday’s meeting, he proposed a clawback measure be attached to funding, so that hospitals would have to return money for each nurse that leaves.

The clawback would be a safeguard against any counterproductive policy, Masterson argued, “whether that’s quarantine policies, testing policies, vaccine policies.”

“You’re forcing healthy nurses out of the market and you’re discriminating versus accommodating,” Masterson said. “They may go back voluntarily and look at some of their policies and how it would affect their earnings if they know they’re subject to reimbursement.”

Masterson also called for hospitals with a vaccine mandate to allow for a personal religious exemption.

Jon Rolph, a Wichita restaurateur, says health care providers recognize that vaccines provide a “way out of this pandemic.” (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

Medical care providers in Wichita, Topeka, Lawrence, Manhattan and the Kansas City metro area have all set deadlines for staff to be vaccinated. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported 112 new deaths from COVID-19 in Kansas in the past seven days, along with more than 200 new hospitalizations.

Nearly all cases of hospitalizations involve unvaccinated residents. Just 58.3% of eligible Kansans are vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Jon Rolph, a Wichita restauranteur appointed to the panel by the governor, said most people in the health care industry agree the vaccine is the way out of the pandemic.

“I didn’t want this to become a political debate around vaccinations,” Rolph said. “The idea of this is to get money to frontline workers to protect capacity. And I think you would generally agree, President Masterson, that we don’t want to tell private businesses what they should be doing with policies inside of their business.”

Masterson’s response: “We would not be telling businesses what to do. This is not that situation. We’re not telling anybody what to do with their money. We are saying what it means for you to be handed the people’s money.”

The panel rejected Masterson’s motion on a 5-2 vote, with Masterson joined by his appointment to the panel, Wichita businessman Bill Pickert, in supporting the clawback measure.

The $50 million pay boost is based on the number of nurses needed to operate the licensed beds at Kansas hospitals that provide acute care. The standard ratio for medical providers is six in-patient beds per nurse and two ICU beds per nurse. The pay would translate to an average of $5,000 in retention pay for nurses who have been quitting or retiring early after 18 months of stressful working conditions. The pay increase would be retroactive to Sept. 1 and expire Dec. 31.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman says hospitals should be allowed to spend the $50 million on innovate ways to retain nurses besides increasing their pay. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

To discourage hospitals from poaching nurses from each other, or from nursing homes and other facilities, the panel considered whether to make the pay boost available only to nurses who were on staff as of Sept. 1 or who have retired within the past two years.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman and businessman Greg Orman pushed for giving hospitals more flexibility in how the $50 million could be spent. Ryckman said he heard from nurses who wanted benefits for mental and physical health needs, or to be reimbursed for time off if they have to be quarantined.

“I think we’re doing a disservice if we’re just going to vote on this as this one option,” Ryckman said.

The panel decided to gather more information from the private sector before meeting again to gain clarity on how hospitals could use the money, and how federal guidelines might apply.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He is a lifelong Kansan.