Health Kentucky Politics

Kentucky hospitals and nursing homes have been struggling with staffing shortages as COVID-19 continues to surge through the state.

Health care leaders hoped state lawmakers would set aside funds to attract and retain workers during last week’s special legislative session dealing with the pandemic, but legislators said the initiative didn’t fit within Gov. Andy Beshear’s agenda for the session.

Instead, lawmakers passed a measure allowing paramedics to work in hospitals and setting aside $69.2 million in federal relief money for testing supplies, vaccination campaigns and monoclonal antibody treatment.

Jim Musser, vice president for policy and government relations with the Kentucky Hospital Association, said the special session produced some helpful policies, but they didn’t go far enough.

“All of those things are good. They are obviously not the same kind of help we would hope for, but we’re certainly not going to denigrate those things,” Musser said.

“None of them is a panacea because we are in a true emergency.”

As of Monday, 66 of Kentucky’s 96 hospitals were experiencing critical staffing shortages.

Beshear called the special legislative session after lawmakers passed laws limiting his emergency powers during the pandemic. The governor’s emergency orders now only last for 30 days unless lawmakers vote to renew them.

Late on the final day of the session, Republican Sen. Ralph Alvarado filed a bill that would provide $81 million to help hospitals and other providers retain and recruit nurses, therapists and other critical medical staff.

The measure never passed out of the Senate and Alvarado criticized Beshear for not including hospital recruitment in his call for the special session.

“You can have all the equipment you like, but if you don’t have the people that know how to use it and administer that for patient care, you’re losing the lifeblood of our hospitals. And we’re hemorrhaging now,” Alvarado said.

The governor is the only one who can call a special session and set its agenda. Beshear listed 10 items in his agenda, including several coronavirus-related issues and a request for lawmakers to set aside money for a mysterious economic development effort.

During a press conference on Friday, Beshear said the state didn’t have any more federal relief money to spend recruiting health care workers. And he said staffing agencies for travel nurses are gouging hospital systems.

“These staffing agencies that are out there are going into their facilities, hiring people out of it, and then these facilities have to go and pay the staffing agency twice the rate to get the same person back. So simply throwing money at the wages simply makes the staffing agencies increase their amount there,” Beshear said.

Musser, with the Kentucky Hospital Association, said the cost of travel nurses has gone up during the pandemic because of the great need for them.

“There’s a need, and the way the market works is prices go up when there’s a lot of demand and not enough supply to meet that demand,” Musser said.

Beshear has deployed more than 400 National Guard members to provide support to 25 of the state’s hardest-hit hospitals in recent weeks.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.