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Kansas City hospital leaders worry staffing, bed space issues will reach a critical point this fall

The VA Medical Center in Kansas City, Missouri. In 2016, 69 percent of veteran suicide deaths resulted from a firearm.
Chris Haxel
KCUR 89.3
Hospital officials say bed space is dwindling across the Kansas City metro and personnel needed to improve the situation are hard to come by. If COVID-19 surges in the fall, many facilities will have to make difficult decisions about cutting services.

Hospital directors and health officers across the Kansas City metro addressed concerns with available bed space Tuesday, driven in part by low staffing numbers. It's already creating difficulty getting patients the services they need and could get worse if the level of need increases.

Hospital officials across eastern Kansas and western Missouri are reporting significant strain on available bed space and staffing — and not just due to COVID-19.

Case numbers in the Kansas City region appear to be stabilizing, with an average of 333 new cases a day, the lowest since June 11, according to Mid-American Regional Council data. Similarly, average hospitalizations due to the virus have continued to decline since highs in mid-July, dropping to 72 per day as of Aug. 21.

But even as the strain caused by COVID-19 cases eases, hospitals are still reporting difficulties finding bed space for patients.

Richard Watson, co-founder of Motient, an app used in Kansas for hospital transfers, said at a media briefing Wednesday that when winter and spring spikes dropped back down, many facilities never returned to baseline bed levels. Normal seasonal patterns suggest that as children return to school and the weather changes, the health care system will see higher levels of need across the board, he said.

“These are not COVID beds that we're needing right now," Watson said. "We need beds across the board. The system is already at a higher level of capacity than it was even last year as we went into this time period. Without a doubt, even without any of the other surges, we're going into the fall in a precarious position.”

Watson was joined by a panel of hospital leaders across the metro to discuss shared issues over bed space, driven in part by low staffing. Panel members were worried about a potential financial and infrastructure crunch if the level of health care needs increases suddenly due to COVID-19 or for other reasons.

According to a poll of health care workers across the country, 18% of health care workers quit their jobs during the pandemic, and an additional 12% were laid off. Among those who kept their jobs, 31% reported they are or have considered leaving.

The job vacancy rate in Missouri hospitals in 2021 was more than 20% and could rise to 25% across all disciplines, including doctors, therapists, dieticians and other health care workers, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.

At the Kansas City VA Medical Center, staffing issues are reaching a critical point, with only one staffed bed available. Chief of Staff Ahmad Batrash said that major staffing concerns led the facility to reduce space by 15 beds.

The VA currently has only nine inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients. But Batrash said 21 employees were out due to COVID.

“The nurse staffing has really been a struggle for us to maintain an inflow, with people leaving the positions or moving on to other industries even,” Batrash said. “In the fall, if any surge happens, that would be a problem.”

Officials of both North Kansas City Hospital and AdventHealth Shawnee Mission reported staffing was affecting their bed space as well. Sixteen employees are out with COVID-19 at North Kansas City Hospital and 12 at AdventHealth Shawnee Mission.

Kimberly Megow, chief medical officer for HCA Midwest Health, said HCA was opening one or two beds here and there hourly to relieve some pressure as staffing allows.

The situation mirrors forecaststhat the health care industry is in for a significant downturn. Steven Stites, chief medical officer of the University of Kansas Health System, said the system usually processes anywhere from 40 to 70 transfers per day but are now down to the low teens, the same as during case spikes in January and February.

“It is not so much a COVID crisis as it is a health care crisis,” Stites said. “Many hospitals are going to be faced with financial shortfalls and may close. We're at a little bit of a precarious tipping point right now in health care.”

As KCUR's health reporter, I cover the Kansas City metro in a way that reflects our expanding understanding of what health means and the ways it touches different communities and different areas in distinct ways. I will provide a platform to amplify ideas and issues often underrepresented in the media and marginalized people and communities in an authentic and honest way that goes beyond the surface of the issues. I will endeavor to find and include in my work local experts and organizations that have their ears to the ground and a beat on the health needs of the community. Reach me at noahtaborda@kcur.org.
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