Kansas nurses lack voice in staff shortage crisis, association director says

Hospitals using $50M retention program funds in variety of ways

By: - November 9, 2021 9:00 am

Kelly Sommers, director of the Kansas State Nurses Association, says the “voice for nursing needs to be a nurse.” She said she was denied a voice in meetings for a $50 million front line staff retention program that won’t do much to retain staff. (Thad Allton for Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kelly Sommers thinks nurses should have a voice in policy discussions about nurses.

If you really want to understand why a new $50 million retention pay program won’t do much to help hospitals address a shortage of registered nurses, Sommers says, there are a couple of things you need to know.

As director of the Kansas State Nurses Association, Sommers sounded alarms long before the COVID-19 pandemic about a looming staff crisis as many nurses approach retirement age. Then, at the start of the pandemic, when hospitals halted elective surgeries and struggled to secure personal protective equipment, some of them began to lay off nurses or force them into early retirement.

Sommers said she tried to tell hospital officials they were making a huge mistake. They told her she was wrong.

“We knew, as an association, that employers who did this just made the biggest mistake they could have made for their system — and that is to devalue a nurse,” Sommers said. “We know we’re looked at not just for what we do, but we also know that we’re looked at as an expense.”

The situation was made worse when nurses on the front lines got COVID-19, and some were forced to use personal time off while under quarantine.

From her perspective, it’s no wonder hospitals have struggled to find enough registered nurses — especially when the highly contagious delta variant spread in late summer, and patients who willfully left themselves vulnerable filled emergency rooms.

“There’s only so much that a person can take on their shoulders,” Sommers said. “There’s only so much that a person can give. There’s only so many hours a person can work in a life-saving profession without breaking. We’re there 24-7, always.”

State officials in September responded to the staffing shortage by funneling $50 million in federal aid into a program specifically intended to retain nurses at hospitals. That money is just starting to reach hospital employees, depending on where they work and how hospitals plan to use the money.

WHERE RETENTION PAY IS GOING

The Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas Taskforce — a panel that includes legislative leaders and members of Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration — signed off on the Frontline Hospital Employee Retention Plan on Sept. 9. The first wave of money was allocated a month later.

“This $50 million will help us retain and attract more front line hospital workers as we continue to fight his virus,” Kelly said. “For over 18 months, our heath care workers have risked their lives every day to protect Kansans from COVID-19 — it’s our responsibility to make sure they have the support they need to continue.”

The program’s goal was to retain registered nurses at hospitals where there were more licensed beds than available staff. The $50 million figure was based on an average of $5,000 per registered nurse at qualifying hospitals.

Money was allocated to hospitals based on the estimated number of nurses needed for licensed hospital beds at each facility. Employees could receive up to $13 per hour in bonuses from Sept. 1 to Feb. 28, with an individual cap of $25,000.

The program offers wide latitude to hospitals on using the cash. Details provided by the Kansas Department of Administration show the money may be distributed to “frontline workers,” who aren’t defined, in the manner hospitals believe “is most appropriate to ensure the retention of critical resources and the maintenance of staffed hospital beds.”

Cindy Samuelson, senior vice president and spokeswoman for the Kansas Hospital Association, said the money divided among employees at 122 hospitals over a six-month period isn’t enough to retain staff.

So every hospital is using the money differently, Samuelson said.

For some, that means rewarding lab workers, respiratory therapists and others who worked the front lines along with nurses. Some hospitals are using the money as a retroactive reward for staff who stayed through workforce challenges. One hospital has decided to use the money as an incentive for workers willing to take holiday shifts.

Inside Mission Control: Hospital capacity in Kansas at its worst with latest COVID-19 surge

“I think hospitals are being very frugal and responsible and taking a lot of time and thought into what’s going to help keep their communities having the best health care they can,” Samuelson said.

As of Monday, state health officials have recorded 442,232 infections of COVID-19, resulting in 6,534 deaths and 15,125 hospitalizations.

Sommers said she asked to participate in SPARK meetings when the retention program was being discussed, but “it did not happen.” She said she was met with resistance when she offered alternative solutions to address nursing shortages.

“It’s never a nursing voice that’s heard,” she said. “It’s always somebody else speaking on behalf of nursing, that doesn’t know who a nurse is, let alone what a nurse does.”

Registered nurses are highly trained. Their value can’t be measured in bed ratios. They don’t just give injections and change sheets.

“While I’m listening to somebody’s lung sounds, I am also assessing many other things,” Sommers said. “I can see how the person is breathing. Are they struggling to get a breath? Decipher what I’m hearing. What is the person doing? What does their skin look like? I mean, there’s a whole environment, and there’s an assessment piece that comes along with that one thing.”

Her ideas include funding a mentorship program for new nurses, drawing on the expertise of retired nurses.

“They need that time to be nurtured,” Sommers said. “They need that time to learn and to grow, or they’ll leave. This current environment is not healthy for a new graduate.”

She also proposed more succession planning. Hospitals fail to train younger nurses to move into positions before more experienced nurses retire.

Nurses don’t need a pizza party, Sommers said. They really don’t need an email from an administrator that says, “Thank you for what you’re doing.”

They need someone to listen to them. They need to be involved in finding solutions.

The $50 million program shows policymakers aren’t looking at the big picture, she said.

“My message is: The voice for nursing has to be a nurse,” Sommers said. “This is the time to hear the nurse voice, and not have other people who do not understand a nurse speak on our behalf.”

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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.

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