Federal agency’s ‘clerical error’ could cost nursing schools millions

Illinois Capitol News

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — If the Hippocratic oath teaches medical professionals to “do no harm,” then perhaps it was a bureaucratic oath that prompted the federal government to “do good on accident.”

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) committed a “clerical error” in 2008 that resulted in sending an extra $300 million to 120 hospital-based nursing school programs across the country, including eight nursing schools in Illinois. Hospital administrators say the money went toward helping nursing students get rare, hands-on training with advanced technology that simulates real-life scenarios in intensive care.

“If we lose that funding, then we might actually lose all the opportunities that we actually allow the students to have,” St. John’s College of Nursing professor Cheryl Pope said.

She led a class of eight students in simulating ICU techniques on a $90,000 high-tech mannequin that was purchased with the federal funds. The machine-operated human lookalike receives advanced data through sensors and measures how well the students perform their tasks.

“To actually be able to touch a patient and learn in simulation allows them to make mistakes without harming the patient,” Pope said, who spent two decades working in the emergency room as a nurse.

“I was so excited,” nursing school senior Daryn Handlin said. “This is kind of why I chose St. John’s because I knew we had the technology up to date.”

Congress set an annual $60 million cap on those funds during the Clinton administration. In August of 2020, the Trump administration noticed the agency had not enforced the cap, and announced it would claw the funds back from the last decade of overpayment. The federal government’s “clerical error” would cost the St. John’s College of Nursing roughly $1.5 million in repayments, according to board chairman Mike Houston.

“We’ve been receiving this money for so long, it’s just a part of the overall budget that that we have,” Houston said at a press event at one of the nursing school classrooms in Springfield on Tuesday.

“We operate on a budget where we are losing money in educating our nurses,” Houston said. “And that money that passes through to us from the federal government actually gets us to a point where we’re just a little less than than breakeven.”

Houston, the former mayor of Springfield, said the nursing school has frozen tuition for the last three years, “because we realize the economic impact tuition increases have on our students.”

Handlin said coming up with roughly $25,000 per year for the tuition “has been a struggle,” but one that is worth the payoff.

“I love helping people,” she said. “I want to wake up every single day with a smile on my face and make sure that I can provide the help to my patients and know that I can be there for them.”

Congressman Darin LaHood (R-Illinois 18th District) filed a bipartisan bill with a Delaware Democrat that would block CMS from clawing the money back from the hospital groups. Instead, LaHood’s plan would waive the cap on the program, effectively locking it in as a permanent funding stream to help nursing programs train new recruits for jobs in rural areas.

“These programs often serve rural and underserved communities and possible nursing program closures mean fewer nurses, limited teaching jobs, and fewer educational opportunities for students during an already challenging and costly pandemic when nursing professionals are most needed,” LaHood’s office said in an email.

He hopes to call witnesses to testify before a Congressional committee soon.

CMS has not yet responded to questions about the timeline of their plan to recuperate the extra funds.

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