Pa. to spend $225M to retain, recruit hospital nurses, provide loan debt relief

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Jan. 27—Local hospital and nursing school officials hope that $225 million in federal money being allocated to retain and recruit nursing staff in Pennsylvania, as well as provide debt relief to nursing students, is a step toward reducing a critical shortage in the profession.

"Over the past year, we have been providing incentives and sign-on bonuses as well as salary adjustments," said John Sphon, CEO of Greensburg-based Excela Health, which has three hospitals in Westmoreland County. "And we will review how best to use the latest funding to shore up our ongoing staff recruitment and retention efforts."

Of the $225 million from the American Rescue Plan, $100 million will be allocated to acute care general hospitals. Another $110 million is for recruiting and retaining staff for critical access hospitals, facilities with a high volume of Medicaid patients and behavioral health providers with in-patient facilities.

Hospital executives and administration, contracted staff and physicians would not be eligible for any payments.

The money will be released in about a month, Gov. Tom Wolf said. The allocations were based on the proportion of each facility's licensed beds of all eligible licensed beds as of the end of 2021. All hospitals will receive approximately $2,800 per bed, the state said. Critical access hospitals, high Medical Assistance hospitals and behavioral health providers of inpatient services will receive approximately $4,400 per bed.

The money will help lessen the impact of the pandemic's effect on the front line workers by helping hospitals to retain acute nursing staff and take care of their patients, said state Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Hempfield.

"It was a war zone out there," Ward said. Nurses and front line health care providers were with the 40,000 patients in Pennsylvania who died from covid, when their families could not be with them.

Ward pointed out the stress that hospital systems are working under during the covid pandemic.

She related a story from her husband, Excela Health physician Dr. Tom Ward, who told her of a patient who was kept in the hospital's emergency department for five days because there was not a regular hospital bed available.

The situation in Excela Health's emergency rooms "is indicative of the strain the health care industry as a whole is experiencing," Sphon said. While the health system remains "flexible with regard to available beds, care is never compromised," he said.

Excela Health will receive $1.6 million for its three hospitals.

Westmoreland in Greensburg will receive $1.06 million, while the Latrobe hospital will get about $484,000 and Frick hospital in Mt. Pleasant will receive nearly $94,000.

The financial aid will help Excela Health deal with the "enormous inflationary pressure on salaries and wages, especially for clinical staff due to unprecedented demand for healthcare services during the covid-19 pandemic," Sphon said.

AHN's Hempfield Neighborhood Hospital, which is within Ward's district, will receive $29,000. AHN is determining how the money will be allocated, which the state said is to be for front line health care workers involved in direct patient care. That includes environmental services and clinical care services, said AHN spokesman Dan Laurent.

"We currently have 1,100 open positions for nurses, and it is our goal to fill all of them," he said.

"Words cannot express how incredibly grateful we are to the front line caregivers within our organization, and across the state and country, for their courage, resilience and unwavering commitment to patients and community service during this unprecedented public health crisis," Dr. Donald Whiting, AHN chief medical officer, said in a statement.

UPMC is awaiting further information from the Department of Human Services about specifics of the funding, said Holly Lorenz, UPMC chief nurse executive. Lorenz credited state officials for committing themselves to addressing the need to recruit and retain its front-line caregivers.

Debt relief

The funding package also allocates $15 million to the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) for more loan forgiveness for Pennsylvania nurses.

Nurses can get up to $7,500 in loan forgiveness — $2,500 a year — for each of three years they remain working in the field in Pennsylvania.

"This is a fantastic benefit ... to the nursing workforce who worked under extraordinary circumstances" during the pandemic, said Lynn George, dean of Carlow University's Health and Wellness College in Pittsburgh.

The promise of student loan forgiveness could have a positive impact on the graduation rates for nursing students, which would help ease the nursing shortage, George said. The loan forgiveness program also pertains to nurses who are in the workforce and return to school to complete a bachelor's degree or advance to a master's degree.

The aid is critical when a recent Kinsey report indicated that 30% of nurses may leave the profession during this time of covid, said Mary Ellen Glasgow, Duquesne University's nursing program dean.

"We need to rebuild the workforce, and debt relief for nurses is going to be very important," Glasgow said.

Just as critical is to have nurses reflect the communities they serve, she said.

"We need a diverse nursing workforce in terms of race and ethnicity," Glasgow said.

For those from a certain socio-economic background, "having debt relief is really a gift," Glasgow said.

Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at 724-836-5252, or via Twitter .