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Kansas plan for extra nurses’ pay stalls over GOP concerns

September 8, 2021 GMT

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A plan in Kansas to allocate up to $50 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to retention incentives for nurses and frontline workers has stalled because of top Republican legislators’ concerns about which hospitals would receive the money and how the funds would be spent.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s bipartisan pandemic response advisory task force delayed approving the proposal after a top Republican legislator argued that it should allow hospitals to use the funds to address other pandemic-related issues including mental health. Meanwhile Wednesday, another Republican leader on the task force proposed excluding hospitals that require all of their employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The task force expects to meet again by early next week to consider a revised version of the plan. It would have to sign off on the details before the funds could be spent.

The retention incentives would be capped at $13 an hour and $25,000 a year to comply with federal requirements. Workers would need to have been hired at a hospital as of September to qualify for the retention pay.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican and task force member, said the proposal wouldn’t give enough flexibility to hospital administrators to decide how to spend the funds.

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“When I’ve heard from executives, they want flexibility. When I’ve heard from nurses, they also want flexibility and other options,” Ryckman said.

Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican and a task force member, said in a statement before Wednesday’s meeting that “counterproductive mandates” are exacerbating the staffing shortages that are causing hospitals to have open beds with no nurses to staff them.

Masterson’s proposal to make hospitals with vaccine mandates ineligible for retention incentives failed on a 5-2 vote.

“I want to make sure we have some parameter in place that says we’re maximizing the use of the people’s dollars to maximize these beds,” Masterson said during the meeting. “That’s my concern and vaccine mandates are part of that.”

At least six Kansas health systems are requiring employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 within the next three months, according to the Kansas Hospital Association. Pratt Regional Medical Center in southwestern Kansas required employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine by Aug. 9. Lawrence Memorial Hospital and the University of Kansas health system said in announcements that a majority of their employees have been vaccinated.

Kansas’ hospitals are worried about the upcoming flu season because they’re already strained by the surge in COVID-19 cases tied to the more contagious delta variant that began in late June.

Wichita’s four hospitals have been operating for weeks at full capacity, with limited beds and staff. At various points, they have had to ask ambulances to take patients to other facilities, The Wichita Eagle reported.

At Wesley Healthcare, a shortage of nurses and a growing number of mostly unvaccinated patients is straining the system, said chief medical officer Lowell Ebersole.

Meanwhile, The University of Kansas Health System said 13 people died at its facilities in less than a week.

Its chief medical officer, Steve Stites, noted that the health system had far more COVID-19 patients on Labor Day this year than it did last year, The Kansas City Star reported.

Lawrence Memorial Hospital treated as many COVID-19 patients on Tuesday as it did in January, when it last had so many. Three people died of the disease there over the weekend.

New cases are back to numbers last seen seen in late January, with an average of 1,526 a day for the seven days ending Monday, according to state health department data. New hospitalizations have averaged 35 a day since Aug. 1.

Kansas has lagged behind the nation as a whole in getting people vaccinated against COVID-19, with 48.9% fully vaccinated as of Wednesday, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The national figure is 53.2%, while five New England states have vaccination rates of more than 65%.

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Andy Tsubasa Field is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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Follow Andy Tsubasa Field on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AndyTsubasaF