A state panel on Wednesday endorsed the state Department of Health's request for $37.68 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to partner with Baptist Health to increase hospital bed capacity and staffing for covid-19 cases.
The Health Department's request for federal American Rescue Plan funds is aimed at meeting needs resulting from the current surge in covid-19 cases in Arkansas from the delta variant, Health Secretary Jose Romero said.
"We are clearly in a crisis situation at this point," he told the Arkansas American Rescue Plan steering committee, which then voted to recommend to Gov. Asa Hutchinson that he approve the request.
In May, Hutchinson appointed the 15-member steering committee to recommend the best uses of $1.57 billion that the state received in the federal aid.
In March, President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which is aimed at combating the covid-19 pandemic, including the public health and economic impacts.
Romero said the Health Department reached out to Baptist Health, which proposed to provide 157 additional staffed covid-19 beds, plus the nursing and ancillary support personnel and supplies to care for the patients in these beds.
Under this proposal, he said:
• Baptist Health in Little Rock would provide 50 more staffed medical covid-19 beds.
• Baptist Health in Van Buren would provide 74 more staffed medical covid-19 beds.
• The Little Rock hospital would provide 12 more staffed intensive care unit covid-19 beds.
• Baptist Health in Fort Smith would provide 21 more staffed intensive care unit covid-19 beds, he said.
The $37.68 million budget for this request would equate to $4,000 per staffed bed for 60 days, Romero said. Their use could be extended, he said.
"In total, Baptist Health will add more than 400 caregivers and support staff to further care for these patients," he said.
But Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, said it appeared like only Central and western Arkansas would be covered under the request.
"It sounds like there is a pretty big gap in coverage in eastern and northeastern Arkansas," he said.
But Romero said, "Remember that COVIDComm will work to transfer these patients to these centers when they are available.
"So while there is not a physical plant there in the eastern part of the state, COVIDComm can address the issue of moving patients to these open beds," he said.
Ingram asked why a hospital in Jonesboro wasn't part of the request.
"They did not offer a proposal, sir," Romero said. "We certainly could entertain a proposal from them, and would bring it to the governor and then to you all if you felt that was appropriate," he said.
"We are trying to address this situation quickly. ... We really are at that full capacity at this time. But we can certainly expand this to other regions," Romero said.
Rep. Fran Cavenaugh, R-Walnut Ridge, asked where these more than 400 additional staffers would come from, because Arkansas hospitals already have problems finding personnel.
Romero said Baptist Health already has these people lined up and that's one of the reasons "we are moving quickly on this."
"This is becoming an issue of supply and demand, very similar to the one that we faced very early on in this pandemic, where we needed PPE [personal protective equipment] and the larger states and the larger consortiums were joined together to outbid us," he said. "So we want to get this in. We know Baptist Health has a staffing agency on line ready to provide these services."
Troy Wells, president and CEO of Baptist Health, said the system is working with two or three different organizations in order to hire the required number of staff.
Baptist Health will add more than 170 registered nurses with the requested funding, according to the Department of Health's proposal.
Other resources to be made available for staffing the hospital beds include patient care techs, respiratory therapists and physicians, the department said. Services needed for hospitalized patients will include pharmaceutical, environmental, security and ancillary support.
"All other services not aforementioned, but are required for a hospitalized patient, are included in the proposal," the Health Department said in its request.
The Health Department will secure a memorandum of agreement with Baptist Health and verify compliance prior to reimbursement of the system for services, the department said.
Monthly invoicing not to exceed $4,000 per bed for 60 days will be the financial obligation of the agreement and the total cost will be $37.68 million, according to the department.
Asked whether the Health Department expects the surge in delta variant covid-19 cases to drop off by the end of this 60-day agreement with Baptist Health, department spokeswoman Meg Mirivel said afterwards, "The proposal is for 60 days because of the process Baptist Health would need to go through to obtain staff and stand up the expanded bed capacity.
"We will evaluate the need for an extension near the end of the 60 days," she said in a written statement. "The ADH does not know when the current surge will begin to drop off."