ARPA funds offer start to transform nursing needs, but state will need to step up in the long run (Capitol Update)

The first public hearing by a legislative working group of the American Rescue Pandemic Act (ARPA) Committee was held last Thursday. The working group, led by co-chairs Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow, and Sen. John Haste, R-Tulsa, will do the nuts and bolts work of evaluating various project proposals for using the federal funding before sending them on to the full ARPA committee with their recommendations. The group previously made a decision to first recommend projects dealing with the preexisting nursing shortage in Oklahoma that was aggravated by the pandemic. 

Rep. Hilbert emphasized the urgency of the nursing shortage saying there have been Oklahomans who died because they got sick during a COVID spike and were unable to get life-saving treatment. According to Patti Davis, CEO of the Oklahoma Hospital Association, prior to the pandemic Oklahoma was 45th in the nation in the number of nurses per 100,000 population. The state needs a 40 percent increase in all health sectors to meet current nursing needs. Oklahoma has only 30 Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), 14 Associate Registered Nurse (RN), and 15 Bachelor’s RN programs, which limits the capacity to train nurses. Davis said that ARPA funding presents a transformational opportunity to change that. 

The proposals the working group heard were primarily from educational institutions and ran the gamut in demonstrating how ARPA funds could be used to increase the number of nurses in the state. Southwestern Oklahoma State University (SWOSU) proposes to spend $22 million to build a three-story, 22,000 square foot center for pharmacy and rural health. SWOSU has raised $4.5 million in private funding and $7 million from the City of Weatherford. They are asking for $10 million in ARPA funds that, upon completion of the center, would increase the output of bachelor-level nurses from 128 in 2021 to 225 by 2025, and 300 by 2030.

Murray State College in Tishomingo proposed $1.78 million, which they said would produce 40 additional Associate RNs by 2023 and 80 by 2025. The money would largely be spent for laboratory retrofitting and space. Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant currently has no healthcare education programs and proposes to launch an allied health program. The university is asking for $10 million to renovate and equip its science building and biological science building. The school has $1.7 million matching funds. They will produce graduates with both bachelor’s nursing and advanced degrees. 

Moore Norman Technology Center proposed $634,850 for a new high school Practical Nursing Select program for high school students. Its current Practical Nursing program is for adult high school graduates. They would add two classrooms and one laboratory, which would graduate 16 to 20 high school students each year. 

Oklahoma City Community College (OCCC), Rose State College, and Tulsa Community College (TCC) collaborated with each institution presenting its own proposal. The OCCC proposal is for space, equipment, and an increase in faculty salaries for a total of $3.3 million. TCC proposed $8.85 million to attract and keep qualified instructors, and add space and equipment to expand the nursing program. TCC would add 170 graduates over five years. Aiming to add 50 nurses per year, Rose State College is asking for $9.4 million total, with $7.4 million for salary and benefits, $1.5 million for capital expenditures, and $524,0000 for equipment.

In addition, the long-term care (nursing home) providers proposed $2.4 million to recruit and train 7,500 certified nursing assistants and 1,500 certified medical assistants over three years. Steven Buck, CEO of Care Providers Oklahoma, said that some nursing homes are currently not admitting patients because of lack of certified personnel.  

If this one meeting is instructive, the ARPA funding has exposed Oklahoma’s historic reluctance to fund programs. It seems apparent that legislative intentions to spend the money on “one-time” needs is going to be difficult if they want to be truly transformational. Just in addressing the nursing shortage, once the needed programs are created, they are going to require ongoing funding. If the state wants to make full use of this opportunity, it will have to step up with state funding in the future and not just rely on temporary federal largesse.  


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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