Kansas oversight panel releases $50M for nurse pay boost

By: - September 10, 2021 4:50 pm

Greg Orman outlines a proposal during Friday’s meeting of the SPARK Taskforce for how hospitals can use $50 million in federal aid to boost nurses’ pay. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas officials serving on an oversight panel on Friday released $50 million in federal aid for pay increases of nurses at hospitals overwhelmed by a surge of COVID-19 patients.

The money will be divided among medical care providers based on the number of licensed beds they operate, with restrictions in place to prevent poaching nurses from other employers. Payments to staff may be made for work between Sept. 1, 2021, and Feb. 28, 2022.

Hospitals can use the money to retain existing clinical staff, rehire nurses who retired since the pandemic began, or hire new employees who are getting their first full-time nursing job in Kansas. The pay must be in addition to any compensation nurses were getting as of Aug. 31.

“We’re looking to make this an additive program to really send the message to the frontline care and nurses in Kansas that we value what they’re doing,” said Greg Orman, a member of the Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas Taskforce. “We don’t want it to effectively replace compensation that they’re already getting.”

The State Finance Council last week allocated $50 million for the nurse incentive program on the condition that the SPARK Taskforce would determine how the money is dispersed. The release of funding was delayed by Republican legislative leaders who separately wanted to limit access to funding for hospitals that require staff to be vaccinated, and give hospitals more flexibility in how to use the money.

The goal of the program is to help hospitals maintain staffing levels following waves of departures from nurses who quit or retired. Hospitals have enough beds in Kansas, but not enough nurses to care for patients.

“Many of our nurses are risking their lives every day to save Kansans from COVID-19 and the immense strain on our hospitals is causing them to be exhausted and disheartened,” said Gov. Laura Kelly. “They’re taking on extra shifts and caring for more patients than they can handle — and it’s our responsibility to give them the support they need.”

Senate President Ty Masterson said he was disappointed there wouldn’t be a “modest accommodation to help curb discrimination and coercion,” a reference to his opposition to vaccine mandates. Hospitals throughout Kansas have implemented vaccine requirements for staff following full approval by federal regulators of the Pfizer vaccine.

Panel members on Wednesday rejected a proposal by Masterson to claw back funding from hospitals that lose nursing staff as a result of COVID-19 policies. On Friday, Masterson relented, saying, “I do have the ability to read the room.”

“We’ve had frontline workers — I mean, you can even call them heroes — on the front lines for the last year and a half,” Masterson said. “My only fear is that we’re going to give some of them premium pay, and we’re going to give some others a pink slip.”

He referenced President Joe Biden’s announcement that companies with 100 employees will have to implement a vaccine mandate or undergo weekly testing.

“I’m going to pick my battles and my wars, and obviously, the battle I felt we needed to participate in, thanks to some of the dictatorial edict yesterday, I think the war is going to rage on another front,” Masterson said.

Orman and House Speaker Ron Ryckman wanted to release just $30 million for nurses now, and re-evaluate the program before releasing another $20 million. Ryckman said the state could use the delayed funding as a carrot to persuade counties to contribute to the pot, eventually making the program more beneficial to nurses.

Bill Pickert, a Wichita businessman appointed by Masterson to the panel, said he worried nurse morale would suffer if they learned part of the money was being withheld. The seven-member panel eventually voted unanimously to approve the full $50 million payout.

“It’s important to all Kansans that we have as much capacity as we can, and it really is about stopping the bleeding as much as possible and protecting what we have,” said Jon Rolph, a Wichita businessman appointed to the panel by Gov. Laura Kelly.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 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. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.