Lack of hospital support during Covid crisis has local nurse speaking out

LAREDO, Tex. (KGNS) – With the shocking number of Webb County Covid patients needing to be hospitalized for care since the pandemic hit, it became apparent there was a great need for more frontline workers. To help, the US Government sent millions of dollars to hospitals, including Laredo’s three hospitals, to use in preventing, preparing and responding to coronavirus, including money to help support frontline workers, who very quickly were beginning to feel overwhelmed.

So how was the money used? We spoke to a local registered nurse, who asked not to be identified, who told us how they were feeling during the heavy times of caring for Covid patients.

“I had a lot of friends in different units, the ICU, the Med Surg floors, so everybody was feeling the same, you know, the same pressure, the same stress, the same anxiety.”

She spent the last 6 1/2 years working at Doctors Hospital, her final two during the height of Covid-19.

When asked about support nurses received, she recalls the fear they felt. First, with not enough PPE, even in the air they breathed.

“A lot of them, a lot of them, majority of them did end up getting Covid at one point or another, some, you know, some even passed away from it.”

As things worsened with hospitals and ERs, anxiety set in, and many nurses chose to leave.

“We definitely did lose a lot of staff. We had already struggled with staffing prior to the pandemic. but what we had left, we lost during the pandemic. A good portion of them tried to stick it out for as long as they could. Burnout was a huge factor.”

And that’s exactly what the federal government hoped to prevent when they passed the Paycheck Protection Program and Healthcare Enhancement Act in April of 2020.

The funding bill included millions of dollars for hospitals to help support and retain their nurses, that included incentive pay, retention bonuses, childcare assistance, overtime pay, housing, transportation, and mental health and stress management resources, as well as any other fringe benefits at any time.

We asked our nurse if any of these items were offered to any of her colleagues or to herself.

“No, not a single one was offered?” she said.

We asked if any of these items would have been helpful during the pandemic.

“Yes definitely,” she said. “Mental Health and Stress Management Resources would have been ideal, as well as incentives and retention bonuses. Things like that are very helpful, including the childcare. A lot of people had their kids at home, how were they going to go to work if their kids are doing online learning, you know, from home?” On top of that, our nurse says when the State of Texas sent down nurses to help, things didn’t get better—in fact, they got worse.

“When we had the FEMA nurses there, the hospital cut hours of the regular staff members,” she said. “They were utilizing the FEMA nurses, first and foremost, to fill the positions. Then, if there were hours left, they would give them to the regular staff members, but the majority of them weren’t meeting their full-time hours, so they were basically forced to seek employment elsewhere.”

The reason? She says the all-mighty dollar.

“It’s money, the hospital’s going to save money, because they don’t have to pay us and they don’t have to pay the FEMA nurses because the state’s paying them.”

That’s right, State nurses are paid by the State—not the hospitals.

So how much money did local hospitals receive to help support their staff?

Well, the top spot went to Laredo Medical Center with a little over $4.5 million. Doctors Hospital is next with almost $3.9 million. Specialty Hospital received about $1.1 million.

We reached out to the three Laredo hospitals, asking them to provide us with a response on how they spent the money.

Doctors Hospital and Specialty Hospital did not respond to our request.

Laredo Medical Center did respond with a statement saying, “Laredo Medical Center used the provider relief funds to help mitigate lost revenue, cover Covid-19 related expenses and support critical services.”

But with no specific examples provided, how much of the money was used to support nurses and staff is unknown.

However, our nurse tells us if they would have been offered any of the listed items suggested by the government, it would have made a difference keeping nurses employed at the hospital.

“It’s unfortunate that there’s a lot more that they could do to ensure retention and recruitment of nurses,” she says. “It’s going to be very hard locally, because everybody already knows how it is to work in these places, and they don’t want to.”

A lesson she hopes they’ll remember.

“I know there’s always people that feel it’s all about money, money, money, but for a lot of us, it’s not even about the money,” she says. “We just we want to be able to feel appreciated, we want the hospital to be there for us and have our backs.”

When taking the money, each of the hospitals agreed to submit documentation to the federal government showing how they used the money. Officials says any medical provider who deliberately omits or falsifies information could be subjected to fines, loss of Medicare billing privileges, and even imprisonment.

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