AUSTIN (KXAN) — With Texas nursing homes facing a staffing crisis, state lawmakers earmarked hundreds of thousands of dollars to try and help.

Before adjourning from its third special session of the year, the Texas legislature agreed on how to spend around $13 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funding. Senate Bill 8 directs the Department of State Health Services to distribute $2 billion for surge staffing in long-term care facilities, but hospitals and infusion centers, as well.

The bill also provides the Health and Human Services Commission with additional funding for staffing needs in these homes: $200 million in grant funding for nursing homes and $178 million in grant funding for assisted living facilities.

“They’re going to use these funds for things like recruitment bonuses and retention bonuses; to be able to pay for hero pay and incentives — all those things necessary to be able to compete in these hyper-competitive markets,” said Kevin Warren, President and CEO of the Texas Health Care Association (THCA), which advocates for skilled nursing facilities.

Warren said the funding was needed now more than ever, as other federal relief doled out last year at the start of the pandemic began to run out.

THCA partnered with another advocacy group, LeadingAge Texas, to survey more than 200 nursing facilities and more than 30 assisted living communities. It found 100% of the facilities polled had vacant Certified Nurse Aide (CNA) positions. 94% had unfilled Licensed Vocational Nurse positions, and 90% had unfilled dietary, laundry, and housekeeping positions.

70% of the responding facilities reported they “cannot compete with other employers” to fill the positions. 63% reported they had no applicants for the spots. The majority of the facilities reported relying on double shifts and overtime more than they had to a year ago.

It’s a trend reflected nationwide, as well: a similar national survey found 99% of nursing facilities reported staffing shortages. Many of the homes worried the shortages would cause them to close. The latest federal labor statistics show nursing homes across the country lost hundreds of thousands of employees during the pandemic.

“We would not be here today — I would not be sitting here today — if we did not have a devoted staff,” said Doyle Antle, the Executive Director at Buckner Villas in Austin.

Still, Buckner Villas has not been immune to the staffing troubles posed by the pandemic. He said some staffers had to make difficult decisions about their employment based on the safety of their families and the residents.

He said they plan to funnel as much of the money they receive from the state as they can, straight to their staff.

“The CNA, the caregiver, the front-line caregiver is the lifeline of our ability to provide care, and that’s where we are hurting the most,” Antle said.

“The relationship is strained because there is not enough of me, to take care of all of you. Then, I start feeling like a failure, and I’m diminished. It gets to be overwhelming,” explained Lori Porter, Founder of the National Association of Health Care Assistants (NAHCA). “There are easier ways to make a living, so we have to do something to address the pay equity for CNAs across America, and Texas as well.”

Porter praised the state’s legislature for taking this step towards retaining the current “care-force,” as she calls it, with Senate Bill 8. Still, she hopes to see some of the money used to educate and support new CNAs coming into the profession as well.

In fact, NAHCA decided to launch a new program to offer more training and services to incoming CNAs than is currently required for licensing. The National Institute of CNA Excellence will be offered in Texas starting in January before it expands to other states.

“CNAs have never had a home before; somewhere they can belong,” she said. “But more importantly, CNAs in Texas will have the opportunity to learn from true subject matter experts.”

Currently, federal regulations only require CNA training programs consist of 75 hours of education, including at least 16 hours of supervised practical or clinical training. The National Institute of CNA Excellence would provide longer virtual training and sessions with experts across the country, free to the students. Then, they would match and place students with facilities, in an effort to create a longer-lasting workforce and provide CNAs with more resources to succeed.

Porter does not know whether any of the earmarked federal dollars will be able to be used to fund the institute, but she said they are working with THCA and LeadingAge Texas on its creation.

“Given an opportunity and a pathway for caring for another human being, we are all surprised at how many are still willing to do that,” she said.