Overrun Minnesota hospitals to receive $40 million in federal aid to boost staffing levels

By: - January 12, 2022 2:13 pm

Gov. Tim Walz speaks at a news conference in front of Regions Hospital in St. Paul on Jan. 12, 2022, to announce $40 million in federal aid will be directed toward boosting hospital staffing levels amid surge in COVID-19 infections. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Gov. Tim Walz announced on Wednesday he will direct $40 million in American Rescue Plan dollars to beleaguered Minnesota hospitals to help them temporarily hire close to 350 healthcare workers for the next two months.

The move comes as hospitals are being whipsawed by one of the worst surges in COVID-19 infections since the start of the pandemic and critical staffing shortages caused by burnout, worker infections and, to a lesser extent, vaccine mandates.

“It will not alleviate the problem, but it should be somewhat of a decompression,” Walz said in front of Regions Hospital in St. Paul. “We’re going to have a pretty challenging couple of weeks here. That’s why we are taking this extraordinary action.”

Health officials expect this latest wave of infections driven by the highly-contagious omicron variant to peak in the coming weeks before hopefully dropping rapidly as has happened in the United Kingdom and South Africa.

Walz was flanked by Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm and the leaders of two of the state’s largest healthcare providers — HealthPartners and CentraCare — who repeated a familiar plea for Minnesotans to get vaccinated to prevent further strain on worn-out hospital staff working in full ICU wards.

“(This funding) provides much needed resources and emotional lift for our staff, who are significantly burdened,” said CentraCare President and CEO Dr. Kenneth Holmen.

Hospitals have been pushed beyond their limits for months, with Walz already having deployed 350 National Guard members to help as skilled-nursing teams. He called in military medical teams from the Department of Defense to work in two hospitals in St. Cloud and Minneapolis.

The $40 million will cover the costs of paying health care workers, mostly nurses, to work extra hours — 60 hours per week for 60 days. The Walz administration is also waiving licensing fees for adding new beds in hospitals and nursing homes and reducing the normal waiting period for some nursing home patients to be transfered.

The additional health care workers will meet just a fraction of the need around the state.

For example, more than 800 of CentraCare’s 12,000 employees are currently out sick with COVID-19, and there were 20,000 open shifts over the past year, Holmen said.

CentraCare, which operates six hospitals across central Minnesota, has had to rely on temporary staff and a military medical crew through a request from the governor’s office.

At HealthPartners, more than 1,000 of some 26,000 workers are out sick with COVID-19, said CEO Andrea Walsh.

“Like early in the pandemic, hospitals across the state have had to delay care. We’ve had to cancel surgeries and needed care,” Walsh said. “That is not sustainable.”

The money to pay for additional health care workers is just one part of the problem. Finding and hiring hundreds of licensed health care professionals in the coming days, as state leaders hope, may prove impossible amid a national labor shortage.

The state is in negotiations with a national staffing firm that could provide needed nurses, Malcolm said, but she acknowledged there is demand for those nurses across the country.

The additional nurses and health care workers will be placed at hospitals according to the greatest need, Malcolm said, meaning some patients will continue to be moved across the state.

Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, sent a letter to Walz’s office Wednesday morning urging him to call a special session to pass a bill allowing nurses licensed in other states to work in Minnesota immediately as well as easing regulatory requirements for pending hires in medical facilities. Minnesota does permit nurses with licenses from Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota to practice in the state with minimal barriers.

Walz sent a reply to Miller saying his office stood ready to call a “focused” special session, alluding to his position that Senate Republicans agree not to terminate his commissioners if he calls a special session.

The governor and Republican lawmakers have been negotiating for months over a special session aimed at approving bonus pay for frontline workers and drought relief for farmers. But Walz has not called one because of threats that Senate Republicans would axe Walz’s health commissioner, who has yet to be confirmed despite being on the job since 2019. Meanwhile, the 2022 regular session is set to begin on Jan. 31.

Republicans have also taken aim at vaccine mandates, which they argue infringe on people’s freedoms and exacerbate staffing shortages. More than three dozen Republican representatives signed a letter to the CEO of the Mayo Clinic, threatening to withdraw funding support unless it backed off from a vaccine mandate for workers. Mayo Clinic did not withdraw its mandate and last week fired some 700 employees nationwide for failing to comply.

Holmen, the head of CentraCare, said their vaccine requirement is not at the root of their staffing problems. He said 120 workers were put on leave because of the requirement that they get vaccinated, and about 40 of them have come back.

About 120 workers at HealthPartners were put on leave last fall for not getting vaccinated, about half of whom chose to get vaccinated and return to work, Walsh said.

“There’s a remarkable consensus amongst healthcare providers in our state that this is the right thing to do,” Holmen said.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.