SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — An incentive program will put $10,000 bonuses into the hands of newly hired health care employees if they promise to keep working in rural South Dakota for three years.
The money comes from the state with a matching share from the worker's employer. The Legislature approved the arrangement this year to protect towns where hospitals and nursing homes struggle to find employees.
"It's a partnership with local communities to help them recruit," said Tom Martinec, deputy state health secretary. "They're competing with Sioux Falls and Rapid City, so this is a way to help them."
The program opened for applications July 1 with slots for 60 workers. It replaces a previous plan by doubling the bonus and limiting participation to communities with fewer than 10,000 people. The jobs include nurses, dietitians, nutritionists, lab technicians, pharmacists, paramedics, radiologic technologists and occupational, physical and respiratory therapists.
"It's a no-brainer for the staff person," said Dan Gran, CEO at Freeman Regional Health Services. "They get their $10,000. All they've got to do is show up and maintain their employment. We benefit because we've retained them."
Mindy Jagerson, 21, hopes to pocket the $10,000 three years from now. She grew up in Blue Earth, Minn., earned a two-year associate degree in May from Minnesota West, a technical school in Luverne, Minn., and then found a lab-tech job working for Gran in Freeman.
"I liked the South Dakota area and found a job here, so I moved," she said.
Gran is applying for the bonus for Jagerson. The bonus sounds nice, she said, but it isn't a deal-maker. She hopes within two years to enroll at South Dakota State University to complete a four-year medical lab science degree, but she expects to do the schoolwork online and keep her hospital job in Freeman.
"I don't have any plans to move or anything," she said.
A three-way contract locks in the bonus. The state and employer split the cost 50-50 while the employee signs up to stay. If the town is smaller than 2,500, the state will pay 75 percent. The state money comes in 2015, after the worker has fulfilled the three years, while the employer is free to pay earlier.
Because Freeman has 1,300 people, Gran would cover 25 percent for Jagerson, or $2,500. He said it's a worthy expense. Freeman Regional has 175 employees at a 25-bed hospital, a 56-bed long-term unit, two independent-living complexes and four clinics in Freeman, Menno, Marion and Bridgewater. Two Freeman employees collected bonuses in the previous program. One since has gotten married and moved, while the other is still there.
"Lab and nursing staff positions can be hard to recruit and retain in a small community," Gran said. "It's an extremely challenging thing for us. Freeman is 35 miles to Yankton. Sioux Falls is 45 to 50 miles. You can work here three years and get a $10,000 bonus, or you can go to Sioux Falls. This is that carrot being dangled in front of them to get them to stay."
Martinec said the previous program began in 2002 and lasted 10 years, first using federal money. The new program bypasses federal involvement. It would use about $300,000 a year from the state general fund. A companion program sets up bonuses for rural health professionals with more training. They range from $35,000 for midlevel professionals to $100,000 for doctors starting new jobs and promising to stay three years in towns smaller than 10,000. The state again covers up to 75 percent of costs. Annual cost is $515,000 for the state.
Martinec said it's reasonable to use public money to assist private business.
"The fact of the matter is we need health care workers in rural areas. They're competing against larger towns. That's why we needed to step in," he said.