The Arkansas Legislative Council approved a funding request of more than $245 million to help hospitals and nursing homes recruit and retain staff, and to cope with extraordinary expenses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The money comes from a massive federal act known as the American Rescue Plan, which sends about $1,573 billion to Arkansas state government and an additional $1 billion to Arkansas cities and counties. Other ARP funds will go to schools and for capital projects.

The Legislative Council is the main body of lawmakers who meet in the interim between legislative sessions to oversee state government operations. The Council met soon after the conclusion of the recent special session to consider the health emergency funding requests.

The pandemic has strained the capacity of Arkansas health care facilities in numerous ways. Staff are working long hours. So many beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients that other units in hospitals sometimes lack space for patients with other ailment and injuries. Testing of staff is constant, and continues to add to the cost of operations.

According to the request for funding from the state Department of Human Services, the 226 skilled nursing facilities in Arkansas are in unsustainable financial jeopardy. In ordinary times they rely heavily on government programs, such as Medicaid to reimburse their costs for patient care.

Since last year the nursing homes have spent most of the emergency government funds they received to help them weather the pandemic, their accounts are being depleted and their unreimbursed costs continue to climb.

Without additional help, “thousands of residents and staff face a real risk of multiple closures,” the request said.

Those closures would create severe disruption in access to health care, with reduced availability of nursing care for families and individuals. Local economies would suffer, especially in rural areas.

“The human impact will be considerable,” the DHS request said.

Nursing homes must comply with detailed government regulations, which have changed frequently since last year as medical officials learned more about the pandemic and how it spreads. To meet the specific and complex requirements of regulators, nursing homes have added staff while maintaining nursing services.

Hospitals also have seen increased costs due to the pandemic. They’ve bought protective equipment and additional medical equipment. They are constantly testing staff, patients and the general public. They have partitioned and updated rooms to meet the growing demand for beds for COVID-19 patients.

According to the Human Services Department request for ARP funding, the factor limiting hospitals ability to respond to the health emergency is a lack of frontline staff. In recruiting available nurses and medical staff, Arkansas hospitals must compete with other states where hospitals pay higher salaries.

Hospitals propose to spend the ARP funding recruiting additional staff and retaining their existing staff, the department said in its funding request.

The funds will be disbursed to hospitals and nursing homes according to formulas that take into account how many beds they have and how many people they have on staff already.

Hospitals that don’t accept Medicaid or Medicare will not receive any of the emergency funding.

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