by Victor Skinner
Pennsylvania Republicans highlighted legislation Wednesday that is moving through the General Assembly to direct $225 million to recruit and retain health care workers for hospitals and behavioral service providers.
Leaders of the House and Senate gathered on the lieutenant governor’s balcony between the two chambers for a news conference on House Bill 253, sponsored by Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Tioga.
The legislation allocates $225 million to hospitals and behavioral and psychiatric service providers for retention and recruitment programs for staff. The bill is targeted specifically at nurses and other hospital employees, and it excludes hospital executives, administration, contracted staff and physicians.
HB 253, approved unanimously by the Senate on Tuesday, would direct $100 million to acute care general hospitals; $110 million for critical access hospitals, facilities with a high volume of Medicaid patients and behavioral and psychiatric providers of inpatient services; and $15 million for the Pennsylvania Student Loan Relief for Nurses Program.
The bill includes the creation of the Opioid Abuse Child Impact Task Force, which would study the trend of newborns suffering withdrawal from opioids because of prenatal exposure and report findings to the governor and General Assembly.
“I am pleased that legislative Democrats and Republicans came together in a bipartisan effort to address this issue through House Bill 253,” Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement after the bill passed the Senate. “This legislation is vitally important to supporting our most critical assets, our health care employees. They deserve this necessary relief and our support at this time. Today, I am pleased that the Senate passed the legislation unanimously and I encourage the House to swiftly concur in these amendments and send the bill to my desk. I will be proud to sign this legislation into law.”
Republican leaders applauded the bill’s bipartisan support in the Senate, and said they expect swift approval in the House.
“This bill recognizes the important role of our health care heroes in meeting the needs of patients in our communities throughout the Commonwealth,” Senate pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Bellefonte, said. “Employee shortages and staff burnout are two of the biggest challenges facing our hospitals today. It is critical for us to make sure our best and brightest frontline workers have the tools and incentives to continue their lifesaving work.”
Speaker of the House Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, stressed the legislation is the continuation of efforts from the General Assembly to support front line workers throughout the pandemic.
“There has never been a remote work option for our health care and EMS heroes. They continue to make sacrifices to help our communities recover and heal,” he said. “I want to thank those who have selflessly answered the call to help for months on end and hope the steps we are taking today continue to bring us closer to ending the COVID-19 crisis.”
Owlett said the bill is especially important for rural areas.
“Investing in our hospitals – and especially critical access hospitals serving rural communities like the ones I represent – is vitally important to protecting the public health, not only during pandemic times but all the time,” he said. “Investing in our nurses is equally important as they provide care, comfort, and companionship to patients in hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities at some of the most challenging times in those patients’ lives.”
Officials at several Pennsylvania health care networks applauded the funding, as well as forthcoming legislation to devote an additional $25 million to fire and EMS providers.
“For the past two years, our frontline workers have worked tirelessly to ensure that the communities we care for can count on our hospitals,” Penn Medicine Chief Medical Officer PJ Brennan said. “We thank legislative leaders and the Governor for their willingness to work together to address the current challenges facing hospitals and for acknowledging the contributions of our healthcare heroes.”
WellSpan Health COO John Porter outlined measures the system has taken to address the crisis, and commended lawmakers for responding to calls on the General Assembly for relief.
“In recent weeks, WellSpan Health has cared for our highest number of confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients at one time since the start of the pandemic,” Porter said. “Each of our six acute-care hospitals have been operating well over our 100% capacity. We’ve delayed elective procedures, activated emergency response plans and created nearly 200 new flex beds across our system to meet the surge in demand. Our patients have endured long wait times in emergency departments and our care teams are exhausted.
“Several weeks ago, we and others reached out to leaders of the Pennsylvania General Assembly to collaboratively discuss solutions to this crisis,” he said. “They have responded and the proposals announced today will provide critical assistance to our frontline care teams and help them continue providing timely, compassionate and life-saving service to the patients who come to us for care.”
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Victor Skinner is a contributor to The Center Square.