Kansas governor signs COVID hospital staffing emergency bill, deploys National Guard for testing

Gov. Laura Kelly signed a bill Friday codifying emergency COVID-19 measures she established two weeks ago in a disaster declaration.

Hospitals and nursing homes will now have temporary regulatory relief designed to alleviate staffing challenges. The measures expire in January 2023.

"The Omicron variant continues to spread rapidly throughout the state, impacting our health care and long-term care facilities," Kelly said in a statement. "By signing this bipartisan bill, we can better address the staffing shortages our health care system is facing during this critical time in the battle against COVID-19."

Kelly also on Friday deployed the Kansas National Guard to assist with COVID-19 testing. The 80 nonmedical soldiers and airmen will support KDHE testing sites and help deliver personal protective equipment. Military medical professionals in the Guard who are already filling medical positions will remain in their communities.

Gov. Laura Kelly signed into law COVID emergency measures to help hospitals deal with rising cases.
Gov. Laura Kelly signed into law COVID emergency measures to help hospitals deal with rising cases.

The governor also announced federal Veterans Affairs facilities will provide limited, temporary care to ease the strain on hospitals. The VA will take some noneligible patients for acute care and ICU beds through Feb. 17.

"We are at an inflection point with the Omicron variant, and the strain on our hospitals is taking a toll on our health care workers and patients — all while the virus continues to spread rapidly through our communities," Kelly said in a news release. "The majority of hospital patients are unvaccinated. Please do your part by getting vaccinated and boosted today."

The staffing emergency bill, House Bill 2477, had the backing of various health care lobbyists and passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities.

The bill's regulatory relief "would go a long way toward helping the proponents staff their facilities and provide necessary services for Kansans," said Rep. Fred Patton, R-Topeka.

"This is something minimal that we can do," said Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Baxter Springs.

The governor said that while the new law is critical to fighting the coronavirus pandemic, it will not alleviate all of the problems hospitals are facing.

"This bill empowers physician assistants and advanced practice nurses to order the collection of throat swabs for COVID-19, which relaxes the need for having a physician's order to do that testing," Kelly said at a bill signing ceremony. "It allows nursing staff with exempt inactive or lapsed licenses to provide medical services appropriate to their education, their training and their experience, which significantly increases the staff available for patient care.

"It allows both students enrolled in programs to become healthcare professionals and emergency medical personnel serving in the military to volunteer at health care facilities and at nursing homes. It also allows healthcare professionals licensed in other jurisdictions to practice in Kansas."

COVID-19 hospitalizations are higher now than during any prior surge in the pandemic, according to Kansas Hospital Association reports. The latest wave from the omicron variant has particularly affected children.

"Unfortunately, we believe that the reality is that the peak of our hospitalizations has likely not yet been reached," Tara Mays, a Kansas Hospital Association lobbyist, told lawmakers.

Coronavirus case rates continue to climb, according to Kansas Department of Health and Environment data. From Wednesday to Friday, KDHE recorded 20,806 new COVID-19 cases, 92 new hospitalizations and 29 new deaths.

Federal data show Kansas had the country's ninth-highest rate of new cases per capita over the past week. More than 2% of the entire state population was diagnosed with COVID-19 over the past seven days. Nearly one-third of all tests came back positive.

"We are seeing a record number of COVID-19 cases across the state, causing staffing shortages and hospitals to reach capacity," Acting KDHE Secretary Janet Stanek said in a statement.

She said the Guard will help provide the manpower needed with the increased demand for COVID-19 testing, while the VA accepts transfers from Kansas hospitals.

Hospital leaders have warned that rationed care may be in the state's future, especially if masking compliance and vaccination rates remain low.

More: Kansas lawmakers fast-track COVID emergency bill, press new KDHE secretary on conspiracy theories

Anti-vax amendment fails

The bill hit a lengthy snag in the Senate when Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson and an anesthesiologist, proposed an amendment that would have barred most health care workers from refusing to treat or otherwise discriminating against unvaccinated patients.

Doctors and nurses could have had their licenses suspended if they violated the law.

He said he has heard of multiple instances where doctors offices in Kansas refused to see patients who had not gotten immunized against COVID-19. In one case, the patient turned to Steffen to fill a prescription, he said.

"She went to her family physician of 20 years and told this doctor that she was not vaccinated and was summarily escorted out of the building," Steffen said. "She was out of her blood pressure medications."

His proposal failed in a 17-19 vote.

Steffen was one of a group of Republican senators who introduced an anti-vax bill during the November special session on vaccine mandates. The bill targeted various public health measures for all infectious diseases — none of the provisions were specific to COVID-19.

Gov. Laura Kelly speaks before signing a COVID-19 staffing emergency bill Friday in the Statehouse rotunda. (Jan. 21, 2022)
Gov. Laura Kelly speaks before signing a COVID-19 staffing emergency bill Friday in the Statehouse rotunda. (Jan. 21, 2022)

The emergency staffing bill was fast-tracked through the Legislature after it convened Jan. 10 because of a 15-day limit on executive orders. Kelly, a Democrat, issued the emergency declaration Jan. 6, meaning the provisions would have expired Friday without legislative action.

"We'll keep these orders in place for 15 days as a stopgap until the Legislature can convene and send me a bill," she said.

At the time, Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, questioned "the necessity of a new statewide disaster emergency" given the imminent return of lawmakers to Topeka. Meanwhile, Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt and gubernatorial candidate called for lawmakers to "exercise strict oversight" over the governor's powers.

More: COVID disaster spurs Gov. Laura Kelly to declare emergency as Kansas hospitals struggle

Steffen also argued that "the only thing worse than no care is bad care."

Lawmakers had originally intended to sunset the emergency provisions in May, but they now will expire in January 2023. They grant certain people, including those with less formal training and retirees, the authority to help in certain health care settings.

"We do have a grave obligation, a big obligation, to make sure that once this is passed that we do keep track of what the health outcomes or the quality of care is from here on out," Hilderbrand said.

Kelly previously told reporters that lower-quality care is better than no care.

"Right now, we have an issue because of the staffing shortage," she said. "So is it ideal? No. But it's better than what's going on where people are not getting treated."

Jason Tidd is a statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached by email at jtidd@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jason_Tidd.

This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: COVID hospital staffing law passed, National Guard deployed in Kansas