Hospitals have lacked staff to meet patient demand. (Photo by Lynne Terry/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Oregon officials have stepped into the fray of the state’s hospital crisis with a request for nearly $40 million from the Legislature.

The Oregon Health Authority and state Department of Human Services sent requests to the two Democratic leaders of the state House and Senate – Sen. Peter Courtney, D-Salem and Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis – last week. Courtney and Rayfield chair the Legislature’s emergency board, which is due to meet in September to adjust agency budgets and field funding requests.

The Department of Human Services is seeking $28.38 million, with $25.78 million from the general fund and $2.6 million in federal funds. The health authority is requesting $11.65 million, with $9.65 million from the general fund and the rest in federal dollars.

Oregon’s hospital system – and its long-term care sector – have struggled through worker shortages that have grown during the pandemic. Part of the problem, experts say, is the low reimbursement rates paid to providers which force facilities to keep salaries low, particularly in the long-term care sector. The Legislature has raised rates, but they’re still not sufficient, Fariborz Pakseresht, DHS director, said in his letter. Hospitals also struggle to find enough nurses and other professionals, with thousands of positions open across the state. 

“To avoid life-threatening hospital bed shortages and make sure people can access the care they need, we must address the current health care staffing crisis,” Pakseresht wrote.

The staffing crisis in hospitals and long-term care facilities has limited the number of patients and residents they can admit.

“This current crisis has led to delays in moving patients from lower to higher levels of care, finding a bed when someone needs to be admitted from an emergency department, and finding a placement for a patient that is ready to be discharged from a hospital to a skilled nursing facility or other patient setting, such as an adult foster home,” Patrick Allen, health authority director, said.

On Monday, about 475 patients were “boarding” in a hospital bed, awaiting transfer to a facility with a lower level of care, according to data from the Association of Hospitals and Health Care Systems.

To help alleviate that logjam, Pakseresht proposes spending:

$14.9 million for short-term staff in long-term care facilities.$4.4 million on shelter space for individuals who are well enough to transition out of a skilled care setting but have nowhere to go.$4.2 million to pay adult foster homes, which can care for a maximum of five people, to take discharged hospital patients.$1.5 million for long-term care facilities on the brink of bankruptcy and for rural Oregon.$0.8 million to create “enhanced care facilities” to take in hospital patients with complex behavioral needs who require acute care.

The Oregon Health Authority also asked for money for enhanced care facilities – $1.5 million. It said that funding would be matched for a total of $3.5 million.

In addition, the health authority wants:$6.9 million to contract 50 nurses to care for patients who require less care in the hospital, with hospitals paying 25% of the cost. The agency estimated that would amount to $8.7 million total.$750,000 for three clinical staff to help coordinate the transfer of patients from constrained hospitals to others in emergency situations.$500,000 for 350 licensed and indigenous health care interpreters.$50,000 for grants for six regional resource hospitals which help coordinate care in their region.

The requests stem from negotiations with the hospital association, which released a statement on Friday, welcoming the requests.

“We asked the state for help to take pressure off the system, especially when it comes to discharging some patients and transferring others to more appropriate levels of care,” said Becky Hultberg, president and CEO of the association. “Today the state made the commitment to help, and we are grateful. This was a collaborative effort that we hope will help us take care of patients in need today, and avoid a disaster in the coming months, when people return to indoor activities and seasonal flu cases rise.”

Hultberg urged the emergency board to support the requests. Hultberg has told the Capital Chronicle that the money will help in the short term but does not provide a long-term fix. 

Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years. She has won state, regional and national awards, including a National Headliner Award for a long-term care facility story and a top award from the National Association of Health Care Journalists for an investigation into government failures to protect the public from repeated salmonella outbreaks. She loves to cook and entertain, speaks French and is learning Portuguese.