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R.I. hospitals are asking for a big chunk of the state’s unspent ARPA funds

Most of the funds requested would help with recruitment and retention efforts such as premium pay to eligible workers.

Mary Sullivan, Chief Nursing Officer of Bradley Hospital, walks past children's interview rooms and waiting chairs for parents or guardians.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Hospitals and the associations and unions that represent them have requested more than 30 percent of Rhode Island’s unspent American Rescue Plan Act funds.

The Hospital Association of Rhode Island (HARI) is requesting $200 million, an increase from a $150 million request in the fall due to more unforeseen costs caused by the Omicron variant surge, which would be administered to every hospital in the state. Individual hospital systems, like Care New England, have also requested another $108 million from the state’s $1 billion in unspent federal dollars to help fill staffing holes and construct new medical units to increase capacity.

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Most of the funds requested would be set aside to help with recruitment and retention efforts such as premium pay to eligible workers; scholarships, grant money, and loan forgiveness; higher education support for increased education programs; among other items. Teresa Paiva-Weed, the president of HARI, said the organization’s request reflects the increased costs that have accrued in “unanticipated operating expenses” from each of the state’s 12 hospitals.

Over the course of the pandemic, hospitals in Rhode Island — like those in other states — have faced continuous staffing shortages and higher operating costs. The financial pressures are from both inflation and supply chain issues that have plagued the business community for the last two years, but also due to the state’s low Medicaid reimbursement rate to the hospital.

Teresa Paiva Weed, president of the Hospital Association of Rhode Island, listens to a the press conference about capacity at emergency departments across the state.MARK STOCKWELL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

“This additional funding would be to stabilize the health care system [across Rhode Island], which has been severely impacted by COVID-19,” Paiva-Weed said on a phone call Monday. “But I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that these hospitals are already financially fragile.”

On top of it, many frontline workers left the industry due to burnout, lack of hazard pay, or because they could make more money elsewhere — like becoming a traveling nurse and be paid double or triple their salary. Hospitals in Rhode Island are now paying those costs.

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Care New England requested $108.3 million. Kent Hospital in Warwick requested $51.75 million in total to provide premium pay for workers to support recruitment and retention. Women and Infants Hospital requested $22.95 million to recruit and retain staff members and another $10 million to construct a new labor and delivery center to “fulfill patient need and address maternal mortality rates.” Butler Hospital requested $15.6 million to help recruit and retain staff and another $8 million to create a “short-stay unit” of 25 beds that they said would be a solution to “address the lack of capacity for mental health patients and alleviate overcrowding in emergency rooms across the state.”

Ian Lacombe, a nurse at Butler in the admissions department, told the Globe the hospital already has the space for the short-stay unit, but it needs to be outfitted with furniture and equipment. To him, on the frontlines, it’s a necessary unit for the state.

“People are being boarded in the medical hospital ERs for days before they can even get to us,” Lacombe said. “We’re always above capacity. I’ve been at Butler for 20 years and I’ve never seen staffing [levels] struggle as much as we’ve had in the past year.”

At Lifespan, the state’s largest health care system that owns five hospitals, more than 2,245 jobs need to be filled. Care New England, the second largest system with three hospitals, more than 800 jobs need to be filled, Westerly Hospital needs another 50 workers, and South County Hospital needs 141. Many of those positions are being filled by health care workers from staffing agencies.

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Some of these companies offer sign-on bonuses like Lifespan, which will pay up to $30,000 to a new hire. But others, like Westerly, do not — making it even more difficult to attract young employees who have thousands in student-loan debt.

“We are continuously assessing our benefit programs and are currently evaluating a tuition reimbursement option as well,” said Anitra Galmore, who is the vice president, chief nursing officer, and chief operations officer at South County. The hospital does offer employee referral bonuses and existing employees can earn up to a $3,000 bonus if the person they refer is hired.

Dr. Seth Koenig, center, chief of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine, and the medical staff at Kent Hospital's intensive care unit, hold their morning rounds.David Goldman/Associated Press

Lifespan also offers a $75 monthly student loan debt repayment for full-time employees, which are paid directly to lenders. Yet, the system said despite its lucrative benefits package, the company needs to attract thousands more and to fill its gaping budget holes.

“We’ve lost tens of millions of dollars year-to-date. The bottom line has really taken a hit. We lost our elective cases. We got federal relief and thank goodness we did,” said Dr. Timothy Babineau, the outgoing CEO and president of Lifespan. “But there was no federal relief this time. So we have the same losses but nothing to fill the gap.”

Babineau said he knows there have been more organizations that have requested funds compared to the dollars that were provided to Rhode Island. “And the vast majority of those requests are absolutely legitimate, like affordable housing. I’m not debating that whatsoever.”

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“However, I think we demonstrated during the pandemic the vital role the health care system plays in this state,” he said. “So I think it’s in the state’s best interest to make sure that the health system remains financially secure.”

Service Employees International Union District 1199 New England, which is the union that represents many of these workers, also requested an unnamed amount of funds for recruitment and retention bonuses and pay for hospital, nursing home, and other health care facility workers.

“People are seriously underestimating how worn down frontline workers are,” said Quinn. “I’m not saying money is going to solve the whole issue. But workforce stabilization needs to be our No. 1 job. Why would you leave money just sitting in the bank?”

Paiva-Weed said the General Assembly will ultimately decide how the funding formula would work if these funds are approved — meaning, which hospitals get what. But she said she is advocating for an “equitable distribution.”

“These hospitals will be strained by the pandemic for the foreseeable future,” said Paiva-Weed, who said attracting new workers could take “several years” to address. “But we’re committed to rebuilding these hospitals.”



Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.