Nursing program is rope in tug-of-war

By Greg Gelpi

A weak economy sparked a tug-of-war over $30 million, and school nursing programs are caught in the middle. If the schools lose, Clayton County could be without school nurses.

The Georgia Hospital Association is lobbying state legislators to "redirect" funding from a tobacco settlement usually given to school nursing programs to Medicaid.

Although the economy is picking up, the state's hospitals are facing large deficits.

"If they don't approve the funding, then essentially we're gone," Kilpatrick Elementary School nurse Reagan Sayre said. "We will be fired."

Sayre, who has a been a nurse with the Clayton County Public School system for four years, said she has become accustomed to the annual fight for funding. She has no choice, but to focus on her patients, though.

When the issue arises, she must prove her worth, Sayre said. In a typical day, she sees about 15 to 20 students, as well any school staff in need of medical attention.

"Would you like to see my filing cabinet?" she asked, explaining that her worth is well documented.

School nurses perform a vital role, Sayre said. She is the only one at the school trained to give insulin shots to Kilpatrick's diabetic students. Without her, a parent would have to go to school every day to give the shots.

The GHA contends, though, that many of these students receive medical treatment from hospitals anyway, Kevin Bloye, the director of public relations for the GHA, said.

"Our feelings are that we should redirect some of the money used for school nurses for Medicaid," Bloye said. "Basically, Medicaid is facing a huge shortfall in the coming year."

About two-thirds of the state's hospitals are losing money, he said.

"Obviously, the economy is certainly picking up, but at the moment we still have these budgeted shortfalls," Bloye said. "Our members are telling us that there is nothing left to give."

The economy mixes with increasing costs and decreasing revenue to make the situation even more dire.

"I'm certainly not saying that the school nurse program would not be affected," Bloye said.

Clayton County's school nurse program would be more than just "affected." It couldn't survive without the state funding, Lee Davis, the school system's chief financial officer, said. The county would have to decide to cut the school nurses program or cut funding from another program.

Last year, Clayton County received almost $894,000 from the 1998 Phillip Morris national tobacco settlement, Davis said. The county spent a total of just under $1.1 to fund the program.

With local funding, the school system could only afford about six or seven nurses, Davis said.

The GHA and Georgia Parent Teacher Association reached a compromise last year, but Bloye said a compromise is not being considered this year.

Lynn Sanchez, the health chairwoman of the GPTA, said the GHA has shut out the organization. She said members of the GPTA tried to attend meetings between the GHA and legislators, but were thrown out.

"In rural Georgia, that is the only healthcare they've got," Sanchez said.

The county currently funds school nurses at all elementary schools in the system as well as one middle and one high school.

The state will decide on the funding when it holds the 2004 General Assembly.