The state Department of Health's request for $50.1 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds to open up 265 more beds at 11 hospitals across the state in response to the recent surge of the omicron variant won the endorsement of a state panel on Monday afternoon.
With no audible dissenting votes and Health Secretary Jose Romero recusing, Arkansas' 15-member American Rescue Plan steering committee voted to recommend approval of the Department of Health's request.
Hospitalizations in Arkansas related to covid-19 have increased by more than 120% in less than four weeks, and Arkansas hasn't previously had such a rapid rise in covid-related illness and hospitalizations during the pandemic, the Department of Health said in its written request for funding.
The demand for nursing and other caregivers has skyrocketed and there is a significant need for additional bed capacity across the state, the department said. The state has more than 1,000 covid patients in hospital beds.
To help mitigate the stress that hospitals are experiencing statewide, there is an immediate need to create additional bed capacity, according to the Department of Health.
Romero said the request for $50.1 million will help finance "outside staff" to increase bed capacity.
Admissions at hospitals are increasing and some hospital admissions are "incidental admissions," Romero said in response to a question from state Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage. But Romero said intensive care unit admissions are increasing due to covid-19.
While the overall infections from omicron are milder, some are more severe, he said.
Most of the people admitted into hospitals with covid-19 are unvaccinated and haven't received booster shots, Romero said. The number of children admitted in hospitals and intensive care units also is rising, he said.
Arkansas could see the number of covid-19 cases decline by the end of the month, but the state's disadvantage is a significant part of the state's population is not vaccinated, he said.
A.J. Gary, director of the state Division of Emergency Management, said the state shouldn't have any problem getting reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the department's proposed use of $50.1 million in federal funds to expand bed capacity.
Renee Mallory, chief of staff at the Department of Health, said the prospects look good for FEMA to reimburse the state for up to $66 million in American Rescue Plan funds used for expanding bed capacity during a previous covid-19 surge.
The Department of Health's request includes:
• $7.875 million for Unity Health-White County Medical Center in Searcy to expand bed capacity by 35 beds -- including 18 medical and 17 ICU beds -- for 45 days.
• $7.65 million for Conway Regional Health System for 34 beds -- including 19 ICU beds and 15 medical beds -- for 45 days.
• $6.75 million for CHI St. Vincent in Hot Springs for 30 total beds for 45 days.
• $6.75 million for CHI St. Vincent in Little Rock for 30 total beds for 45 days.
• $4.41 million for Baptist Health in Van Buren for 35 medical beds for 28 days.
• $4.052 million for Mercy Hospital Northwest in Rogers for 18 ICU beds for 30 days.
• $3.6 million for Mercy Hospital Fort Smith for 16 medical beds for 45 days.
• $3.528 million for Baptist Health in Conway for 28 beds -- including 24 medical beds and four ICU beds -- for 28 days.
• $2.565 million for St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro for 13 medical beds for 30 days and eight ICU beds for 30 days.
• $1.5 million for Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock for 10 beds -- including six ICU beds and four medical beds -- for 30 days.
• $1.44 million for Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville to expand bed capacity by eight medical beds for 45 days.
Afterward, the Legislative Council co-chairmen, Wardlaw and Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, said they intend to sign off on the Department of Health's request for spending authority to use these funds on behalf of the Legislative Council.
Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, and Rep. Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne, could not be reached for comment by telephone early Monday evening about whether they will do so. They are the co-chairmen of the Legislative Council's Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Subcommittee.
In May, Gov. Asa Hutchinson appointed the steering committee, comprised of nine Hutchinson administration officials and six state lawmakers, to recommend the best uses of $1.57 billion in federal recovery funds and $157 million in federal capital project funds under the American Rescue Plan. In March, President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion law that is designed to help the U.S. recover from the economic and health effects of the covid-19 pandemic.