BENTON, KY — The Marshall County Health Department is cutting a program that provides nurses to several schools because of looming pension cost increases from the state.
The health department currently has four clinics in the Marshall County School District — at Calvert Elementary, Jonathan Elementary, South Marshall Middle School, and North Marshall Middle School. Each clinic is staffed by a nurse employed by the health department.
During a meeting on April 18, health department board members decided they had no choice but to cut the program because of an impending spike in payments to Kentucky Retirement Systems.
Currently, health departments and other quasi-governmental agencies across Kentucky must contribute 49 cents for every dollar they pay in salary to the pension system. But come July 1, that rate jumps to nearly 84 cents per dollar unless a relief bill is signed into law.
Health department board chairman Dr. Joe Ellis said the department has already been dealing with increasing pension payments over the past decade.
“Since 2008, we used to pay $136,000 (a year) in for pensions alone. Now, we pay in $824,000,” said Ellis. “Our salary base stayed the same — $1.6 million. Now, it’s still $1.6 million, so we have quietly assumed these pension increases over these past years.”
The spike in pension payments in July would cost the health department an additional $566,200 per year.
“That brings us up to about $1.4 million we pay alone in pensions,” said Ellis. “And of course, we have a $4 million budget at the health department. So you can do the math. That’s about 35% of our dollars go to pensions alone with this projected increase, unless there’s some type of legislative relief for a period of time.”
Ellis said to help deal with the increase, the board had considered raising the taxing district rate, but ultimately decided against that.
The only other option was to cut some programs. The health department cannot cut core services mandated by law — such as inspections of restaurants, parks and public pools. So the board decided to cut some non-mandated services.
Clinical services at the health department are not mandated, and therefore can be cut. But Ellis said the board decided to keep those clinic services, because they “provide the safety net that, when people fall out with the health care system, they at least have the health department to rely on.”
Ultimately, the health department board decided to cut two non-mandated services — the maternity program and the school nurse program — although Ellis said it was an “agonizing” decision.
“We were so proud of the school nurse program. We actually had trained nurse practitioners out there,” said Ellis. “There was a big demand. We’ve had that program for over 25 years. In my time on the board, this is the hardest decision we ever had to make was to eliminate the funding for that school nurse program. And again, we’ve had citizens over the years tell us how appreciative they were to have that. It filled in a safety net.”
Todd Anderson, principal of Calvert City Elementary, said the nurse provided by the health department is the only registered nurse at the elementary school.
“She dispenses medication for students who need medication. She handles all the first aid. You know, at the elementary school, we get lots of kids who get banged up and get scrapes and bruises on the playground. She takes care of all that,” explained Anderson. “Probably her biggest role is she’s the No. 1 liaison between the school and families for anything to do with medication. And that’s a hugely important role, whether it be medication, whether it be state law requirements for physicals, things that they require medically for students to be enrolled. She’s the one that follows up with parents most of the time on all those types of things.”
Anderson added that the school does have a medical assistant to help the nurse in case she needs to take a break. But, come next school year, there will be no nurse from the health department working at the school.
“I am concerned and figuring out that staffing. Yes, obviously, it’s a position that we will figure out with the board office’s help of what we will have. If we don’t have a nurse, how will we fulfill those needs?” said Anderson.
Marshall County Schools Superintendent Trent Lovett told Local 6 that “one way or another,” the district will hire more nurses to help offset the ones who are no longer provided by the health department. The district currently employs five of its own nurses, Lovett said.
The health department’s maternity program that is also being cut helped women get services elsewhere for extraordinary maternity issues that cannot be treated locally.
Local 6 also called the Purchase District Health Department to see how the pension crisis is impacting them. Public Health Director Kent Koster said they are not planning to reduce any services yet, but will evaluate them in the future. Koster said he expects a pension relief law to be passed.
The Kentucky General Assembly had passed a bill that would freeze the current pension payment rate for another year, but Gov. Matt Bevin vetoed it. He recently said his administration has created a new pension bill. Bevin said he’ll call a special session in the days after the Kentucky Derby and wants a resolution before July 1.