Two months after the omicron variant of the coronavirus slammed hospitals with unvaccinated patients, Pennsylvania’s Legislature unanimously sent fast-tracked legislation to Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday to help keep burned-out health care workers on board during a staffing crisis.
Under House Bill 253, $100 million will be distributed across acute-care hospitals on a per-bed basis, based on those hospitals' number of beds divided by the total hospital beds in Pennsylvania, then multiplied by 100 million. An appropriations committee analysis indicated that this would amount to about $2,800 per bed.
Another $110 million will be distributed to high-Medical Assistance hospitals, designated Critical Access Hospitals, and inpatient and residential behavioral health facilities for recruitment and retention payments to key staff, allowing for an extra $4,400 per bed.
The money is intended assist with staff retention and recruitment, focusing upon those who deal with direct patient care, environmental services or clinical care.
Staff retention payments must be made within three months, and recruitment payments within six months.
The remaining $15 million will go toward the PA Student Loan Relief for Nurses Program, with $7,500 available per individual.
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Wolf noted that his administration joined forces with all four caucuses in an effort to find immediate investments to support the health care workforce just three weeks ago.
“Together, Democrats and Republicans came together in a bipartisan effort to address this issue through House Bill 253. I am proud to sign this critical legislation into law to support our health care workforce and ensure Pennsylvanians can continue to receive quality care for emergency health issues and life-saving procedures," Wolf said.
State Sen. Pat Browne, R-16, Allentown, said that those individuals on the front lines of the health care system and emergency responders have faced many difficulties throughout the pandemic, and that the funding was necessary to retain and recruit workers during the trying times of the pandemic.
“They have endlessly provided critical care, aid and treatment to our fellow citizens afflicted with this virus," Browne said. "The allocation of this funding represents an effort to support the devotion they continue to demonstrate as well as to ensure our health care facility and emergency medical service providers have additional resources available to retain and attract personnel in Pennsylvania as they have faced tremendous staffing shortages during this crisis.”
State Sen. Maria Collett, D-12, Lower Gwynedd, celebrated the approval of the student loan program.
"During the pandemic, we've seen a mass exodus of health care workers retiring early, moving away from clinical and bedside settings and flat-out leaving the field because of the added physical risks and mental strain put on them during COVID, not to mention the added risk to their patients caused by chronic short staffing," said Collett, herself a former nurse. "Our nurses and direct care workers have done a phenomenal, and frankly awe-inspiring, job of responding to an ongoing pandemic with limited resources which makes them the heroes that they are. But words only go so far when it comes to showing our health care workers that they are needed and valued.”
Major players in the Pennsylvania health care system, including Allegheny Health Network, Excela Health, Geisinger, Lehigh Valley Health Network, Penn Medicine, Penn State Health, Temple University, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and WellSpan, commended the General Assembly for passing the bill on Wednesday.
Dr. Brian Nester, president and CEO of LVHN — which would be allocated more than $10.6 million in funds under the formula — thanked the House and Senate for working alongside the Hospital and Health System Association of Pennsylvania (HAP) in order to understand the staffing situation and take action.
"This critical funding will allow us to recruit, retain, and recognize our essential health care workers and ensure a health care workforce in the future," Nester said. "This legislative support will honor and recognize those who have stepped up and relentlessly provided care during our community’s greatest time of need and will help us create the robust workforce necessary to meet the unprecedented urgency to keep our friends, families, and neighbors throughout Eastern Pennsylvania – and the entire state – healthy, safe, and protected.”
Deborah Addo, executive vice president and COO of Penn State Health, said the measure will provide "much-needed funding" for hospitals in Dauphin, Cumberland and Berks counties, which have suffered from labor shortages.
"Further, by supporting the Pennsylvania Student Loan Relief for Nurses Program, it will help us to replace nurses who have left the profession in recent years," Addo said. "This action by the General Assembly is a much-needed lifeline for hospitals and behavioral health facilities.”
While Matt Yarnell, President of SEIU Healthcare PA, also applauded the bill's passing, he also called attention to other factors that are affecting health care workers.
“As important as this infusion of emergency funding is, we also call upon state lawmakers to urgently address the deep and structural crises facing our healthcare workers – such as passing the 'Patient Safety Act' to end the catastrophic short-staffing crisis and require more resources for bedside care for our patients," Yarnell said, adding that nurses and healthcare workers need a "seat at the table, both in Harrisburg and with management at every hospital and system" in order to improve healthcare in Pennsylvania.
Beyond the funding, the bill also creates the Opioid Abuse Child Impact Task Force "to focus on improving the safety, well-being and permanency of substance-exposed infants and other young children affected by their parents’ substance abuse disorders," a release from Wolf's office stated.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared on Bucks County Courier Times: Pennsylvania fast-tracks $225M in pandemic aid to hospitals