By Dave Ranney
KHI News Service
TOPEKA — Gov. Sam Brownback has asked the Legislature to approve an additional $1.9 million for Larned State Hospital.
The funding, administration officials said, was needed to address staffing shortages cited during a recent accreditation survey.
“The vacancy rate for LPNs (licensed practical nurses) at Larned State Hospital is 27 percent,” Kansas Department on Aging Secretary Shawn Sullivan said Thursday, testifying before the House Appropriations Committee. “For RNs (registered nurses) it’s 44 percent.”
About half of the $1.9 million, he said, would be used to increase nurses’ wages; the other half would allow the hospital to hire 23 additional direct-care workers.
The committee started to review the governor’s budget amendment Friday.
Larned State Hospital is one of the state’s three hospitals for the mentally ill.
Last month, surveyors with The Joint Commission, a national organization that accredits hospitals, cited the hospital for 30 deficiencies, most of which were related to understaffing.
Sullivan said hospital employees’ morale was low because nurses and direct-care workers often are required to work overtime. Twelve- and 16-hour shifts were not unusual.
“When you have an RN vacancy rate of 44 percent — that’s almost half the positions — there’s going to be a lot of overtime,” he said.
Raising nurses’ wages, Sullivan said, would allow the hospital to “hire more people and keep them there. Then, the expectation is that there will be less overtime.”
Under the administration’s plan, he said, registered nurses would start at $29.73 an hour. They now earn between $22.16 an hour and $29.73 an hour.
Licensed practical nurses would start at $17.39 an hour. They’re now paid between $13.61 an hour and $18.26 an hour.
The proposed increases, Sullivan said, would align the hospital’s salaries with those paid by other health care providers in the region.
Democrats on the committee asked Sullivan if he thought it was fair to raise nurses’ salaries at one state hospital and not the others.
“We have the same kinds of problems going on at all the hospitals,” said Rep. Jerry Henry, a Cummings Democrat and ranking minority member on the House Social Services Budget Committee. “It’s not just Larned.”
Sullivan said he would conduct “localized market studies” of the other hospitals’ nurses’ salaries prior to next year’s legislative session.
“I’m sure there are vacancy rates at the other hospitals,” he said. “But at this point they’re nowhere near the situation we have at Larned.”
Rep. Bill Feuerborn, a Garnett Democrat, said he thought he administration added to the hospital’s troubles when it decided to replace only 12 of the 43 employees who accepted the governor’s early retirement package.
“I find it interesting that the administration thought it could do away with all those positions and then here we are a few months later being told the hospital has to pay its nurses more and hire 23 more people because all of a sudden its accreditation is in jeopardy,” Feuerborn told KHI News Service. “They didn’t know they were understaffed? I knew they were understaffed. I know they’re understaffed at Osawatomie, too.”
Several Osawatomie State Hospital employees live in Feuerborn’s district.
Sullivan said he thought the retirement incentives were “a good idea” that allowed state agencies to “right-size themselves.”
Earlier this month, officials from the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services asked the House Appropriations Committee to spend an additional $2.1 million on Larned State Hospital.
Sullivan said the administration lowered the amount to $1.9 million after calculating how many nurses would be eligible for raises. It would increase the administration’s total recommended funding for the hospital to $63.5 million for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
The governor’s plan also would not add $30,000 to the medical director’s $210,000 salary.
Larned State Hospital has been without an on-campus medical director since January.
Sullivan will assume official oversight of the hospitals effective July 1, after SRS and the aging department are reorganized. Sullivan will then head the newly named Department for Aging and Disability Services and a smaller SRS will become the Department for Children and Families.