'By God, you stay in your lane': Kansas lawmakers won't link nurse bonuses to vaccine mandate

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
A medical equipment cart is left in the hallway of the Intensive Care Unit at Stormont Vail Heath on Aug. 26, 2021.

Kansas hospitals have indicated they won't back down from requiring their staff be vaccinated amid a debate over whether such requirements should make them ineligible for potentially millions of federal dollars set aside for worker bonuses.

It comes as legislators voted down such a proposal and delayed action on how to structure the $50 million pot of money, which was given initial approval last week and is an attempt to help health care facilities retain their workers amid an ongoing rush of COVID-19 cases.

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, insisted there had been a "false narrative" created that he was intent on excluding facilities with a vaccine mandate, insisting they would have time to re-evaluate their policies in light of the new bonus program.

"There needs to be some accommodation for personally held, religious belief," Masterson said during a meeting of the SPARK executive committee Wednesday, the group of body charged with distributing federal COVID-19 aid. "There needs to be some accommodation for personal autonomy."

More:As Kansas officials eye bonus program for nurses, GOP leader threatens funds at facilities with vaccine mandates

He pushed for the state to dole out the money now and have the option to claw it back later if it was determined staff quit over a vaccine mandate or if the funds, which come from federal pandemic relief funds, were misused.

A motion to stand up the bonus program with language excluding facilities with a vaccine mandate, however, failed in a 2-5 vote.

Concerns extended beyond just the mandate provision, but Jon Rolph, a Wichita restaurateur and board member, said he felt there was evidence that workers would quit out of a fear for their safety if vaccines weren't required.

"Most people in the health care industry would agree the vaccine is our way out of this," Rolph said. 

Move to roll back hospital COVID vaccine mandates unlikely

Any move from hospitals to reverse course seems unlikely. Four of the state's largest health systems — Stormont Vail, the University of Kansas Health System, Ascension Via Christi and LMH Health — have rolled out vaccine requirements.

Russ Johnson, president and CEO of LMH Health, said in a statement that his hospital had no plans to change their requirement, noting that over 90% of workers are already vaccinated.

Similarly, Steve Stites, chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health System, slammed the idea Tuesday, saying it was tantamount to people "trying to tell you how to do your job."

"Let me stay in my lane, but, by God, you stay in your lane," Stites said. "And don't be coming into my lane telling us how to run our hospitals because what you're really suggesting is we're willing to support you if you're willing to let your hospital staff be at risk and that puts patients at risk.

"That just doesn't add up and that just creates that whole mentality that vaccination is bad and masks are bad and you all are bad."

More:Kansas sees nine new school COVID clusters, bringing the total to 31 active outbreaks. Here's what to know.

SPARK committee will consider revised details

Officials are caught between a tug-of-war between quickly dispersing the funds, which come as hospitals across the state are struggling with burned-out staff, and ensuring they are actually accomplishing their stated goal.

The SPARK committee is expected to meet later this week to consider revised specifics for the fund, with members pushing to give hospitals more flexibility to craft their own bonus programs. Others want to require hospitals return the money if they are more profitable than they were pre-pandemic.

More:A Kansas mother’s COVID infection led to Guillain-Barre syndrome. Now she uses a walker and has memory loss.

Previously, the program appeared to be confined to only increasing staff pay by upward of $13-per-hour in additional pay.

But officials want hospitals to be able to use the money for other benefits or to issue a one-time bonus to nurses and other frontline workers.

"Let them use it the way they want to use it: Flexibly, innovatively and ultimately in the service of retaining our frontline health care workers," said Greg Orman, an Olathe businessman and SPARK committee member.

Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at abahl@gannett.com or by phone at 443-979-6100.