HARRISBURG - Two months after the omicron variant of the coronavirus slammed hospitals with unvaccinated patients, Gov. Tom Wolf signed fast-tracked legislation Wednesday to help keep burned-out health care workers on board during a staffing crisis.
The House unanimously approved the bill earlier Wednesday just before Wolf signed it. It authorizes $225 million, mostly for hospitals to give workers retention and recruitment payments.
Of that, about $36 million will go to facilities that provide inpatient behavioral health services.
Another $15 million will go to an oversubscribed program promising nurses up to $7,500 in student loan-debt relief, although officials acknowledged that the extra money still will not satisfy all of the more than 8,000 applications it has received.
The money is from federal pandemic relief signed by President Joe Biden last March.
The 14-day moving average of hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients hit an all-time high of above 7,000 in recent days. The surge in unvaccinated patients came during what Andy Carter, the CEO of the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, called "the most severe health care staffing shortage in recent memory."
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Neither lawmakers nor Wolf administration officials could estimate how many health care workers will be eligible for an increase in pay. They said they negotiated the sum with provider groups and insisted the money is adequate, at least for the time being.
The hospital association said the number of workers who benefit will depend on how each hospital decides to use the money.
The money is intended for staff who are involved in direct patient care, environmental services or clinical care, and not for executives, contracted staff or administrators.
Hospital systems and health care labor unions say staffing problems, including burnout and fatigue, existed long before the pandemic and urged lawmakers to keep working to fix it.
(Office of Gov. Tom Wolf) ((Office of Gov. Tom Wolf) )
SEIU Healthcare PA, which represents unionized health care workers in hospitals and nursing homes, called the money a "good step towards the urgent reform that’s needed."
However, it also said in a statement that lawmakers must pass legislation that deals with the underlying staffing problems in health care by requiring hospitals to maintain minimum ratios of patients to nurses. Hospitals would save money by avoiding malpractice lawsuits and costly mistakes, the SEIU said.
The legislation is currently bottled up in House and Senate committees.
The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania also applauded the money, and said it had recommended a number of ways lawmakers could help fix the underlying staffing crisis. Those include putting more money into clinical education programs to train more nurses and into student-loan repayment programs for health care workers, as well as removing regulatory hurdles for military veterans with certifications and international health workers.