Republican lawmakers announced $225 million in aid to nurses and other health care workers on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022 (Capital-Star photo).
(*This story was updated at 2:45 p.m. on Wednesday, 1/26/22, with additional comment from Gov. Tom Wolf and Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland.)
Nurses, hospital staff, and other front-line workers at Pennsylvania health care facilities could get a bonus in the coming months paid for with federal dollars under a deal quietly struck between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled Legislature.
The proposal, which passed the General Assembly unanimously, will allocate $210 million in reserved federal stimulus money directly to hospitals and mental health treatment centers, including addiction treatment centers. It is the first appropriation of the federal money since the state approved its last budget in June 2021.
The bill also offers $15 million in student debt relief for nurses, an additional funding allocation to what was initially a $5 million program created by Wolf and legislative Democrats last year to provide up to $7,500 in student loan forgiveness to nurses.
The program, which is accepting applications until March, already has received more than 6,000 applications, Sen. Maria Collett, D-Montgomery, a former nurse who spearheaded the program, said Tuesday, though it’s unclear if the additional funding will cover all of those applicants.
Another $25 million in federal money will be allocated to local EMS services, Republican lawmakers said. That money will be passed in a separate bill at a later date, bringing the total spending to $250 million.
Speaking at a rare bipartisan press conference Wednesday, Wolf and top legislative leaders in both parties said that the quick approval of the funding for front-line workers showed that legislators were listening.
“This bill just says ‘we have your back, we appreciate you, we’re so grateful for you,'” Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, said.
But the spending only comes after months of partisan rancor in Harrisburg, some of which has been Democratic criticism of GOP reluctance to spend billions of dollars more in reserved federal funds and surplus tax revenue remains.
The question of how to spend that money will drive closed-door negotiations in the coming months as Wolf and the General Assembly negotiate a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Wednesday’s display of bipartisanship, lawmakers suggested, could signal a new day in Harrisburg, even amid split control of government heading into a contentious midterm election.
“In a lot of places, that’s a recipe for gridlock,” Wolf said. “In Pennsylvania, we’ve been completely honest and forthright about disagreements, but we’ve also figured out where we can work together.”
The funds directed to hospitals must be spent on retention and recruitment payments — made within three months and six months, respectively — to workers “involved in direct patient care activities, environmental services or clinical care services.”
Under the deal, executives, administrators, and physicians do not qualify for retention or recruitment payments. Payments with the money may not supplant recipients’ salaries, and the health systems must provide the state with a report on how the money was spent.
“It’s up to each of the health care institutions to decide how they do this,” Wolf said. “But we’re going to be looking over their shoulder.”
Health care workers, particularly nurses, have long had a high turnover rate due to the stresses of the job, a problem that has only gotten worse amid the COVID-19 pandemic. These hospital staffing issues have also led to higher personnel costs, thus hurting their bottom lines.
While hospitals asked for more, Wolf and lawmakers said that the $210 million was a significant investment. In statements celebrating the proposal, hospital executives from across the state agreed.
“Health care workers need our collective support right now, and we’re grateful the General Assembly has recognized the incredible challenges they continue to experience right now, two years into this deadly pandemic, by providing the assistance when our health care heroes need it most,” Janet Tomcavage, executive vice president and chief nursing executive at Geisinger Health System, said in a statement.
Nurses have also pushed for the state to adopt regulations limiting nurses’ patient load in hospitals, arguing it could also cut down on turnover. Such efforts are sponsored by a majority of House lawmakers and a near-majority in the Senate.
Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, did not say whether such a policy would be included in future negotiations.
“We’re always trying to be flexible in what we need to address the pandemic,” Corman said.
Finally, the bill creates a task force focused on the opioid epidemic and its effect on children, a crisis that worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 11-member panel would be responsible for making recommendations to prevent substance-exposed infants and improve outcomes for pregnant people and parents recovering from addiction.
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