TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke at Seminole State College to announce $125 million in new funding for nurse training programs across Florida. He was joined by State Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo and Senate President Wilton Simpson, among others.

“We’re happy to be able to make some really great announcements about making sure we’ve got great nurses in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said. He thanked State Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo for being at the event, as well as other lawmakers and officials. He introduced the group before jumping into the announcement.

“We’re also joined here, as you can see, by many nursing students,” DeSantis said. “COVID kind of put this into really sharp relief, but in reality there’s been a need for nurses for quite some time. Florida has always projected to have shortages far into the future, and this is something, since I’ve been governor, that we’ve put emphasis on and put resources behind. Once COVID hit, we started to have these situations where if you had a surge somewhere, hospitals would need more folks. They started hiring all of these traveling nurses, and these traveling nurses, obviously these traveling nurses would be making a killing doing this. There would actually be nurses who would be at a hospital and they would just keep working at the same hospital but switch to work for the staffing company and be making a lot more money. And it goes to show that this is a really important field and a very high-demand field. This is something we take seriously, how could I not? My mom was a nurse for over 40 years. So trust me, we understand in my household how important that is.”

DeSantis said throughout COVID-19, the state worked to ensure there would be enough staff to handle the needs of Florida’s patients.

“We also did more than any other state to protect our nurses against mandates,” DeSantis said. “You had a situation where many of these nurses had already had COVID. They were on the front lines, they were dealing with patients. And not just people working in a COVID unit, you had people dealing with a whole bunch of patients, and as many of you know, patients would come in for something else and then some of them had COVID. Maybe not serious COVID, but they had COVID. So you had a lot of nurses that ended up, have already had it, probably a higher percentage of nurses that already had it, among many other things in the population, and you had a lot of them, particularly female nurses in their 20s and 30s, who didn’t want to do the vax because they already had immunity. So we called a special session last year, and we said in Florida, you shouldn’t have to choose between your job and getting the jab that you may not like. A lot of the states are engaged in litigation against CMS for their mandate, and the Supreme Court ruled against us but the state of Florida, we are not going to be involved in any CMS mandate that is going to result in people losing their jobs.”

DeSantis said nurses could sign the form and seek protections provided by Florida law and “they’d be okay.”

“Here’s how ridiculous it got, there were some states that were forcing vax, COVID vax, on nurses. Some of them left their jobs because they didn’t want to do it. But then you had surges, for whatever reason, and the hospitals were shorthanded,” DeSantis said. “So in some states, you actually had a situation where if you had recovered from COVID but were not vaxxed and were perfectly healthy, you were not allowed to work. But, if you were vaxxed and currently had COVID, they were bringing you back in to work when you were actually COVID positive. Just because you had taken the vax. I’m sorry, that is a religion, that is not evidence-based medicine, and it’s wrong. So we are supportive of that across the board, we did that for every employee in Florida. Because we realized how significant it is, people shouldn’t have to worry about putting food on the table, based off of this issue. But particularly, it was so unbelievably counterproductive to impose that on medical personnel and that exacerbated the shortages throughout the rest of the country. Well fortunately Florida, we’re happy to lead. We’re here to announce, this is national nurses’ month, we were working with the legislature during the legislative session, we’ve been going through the budget, and there’s a lot of different things that get put into the budget, some of it is good, some of it may be more questionable, some of it is something that I will pass on. But we really really were pleased to see a lot of support for expanding the footprint of nurses here in Florida.”

The governor announced the budget for the coming fiscal year would include $125 million in additional support for nurses, split between two programs.

“In this funding initiative, we have included $100 million for higher education and workforce education programs composing the pipeline program,” DeSantis said. “This pipeline program will financially reward colleges and universities for excellence in nursing education programs based on their student performance. Institutions will use these earned dollars to invest in their programs, and we’re also doing another $25 million to establish the LINE fund, which is linking industry to nursing education, which will directly go toward combatting the shortage of nursing instructors. The funding evens the playing field for nurses whether they study at a public or non-profit private university in Florida or institution. The price nursing students pay in tuition won’t determine employer preference when beginning their careers. These funds will actually be matched dollar-for-dollar by healthcare providers. We already have a huge amount of interest in this program. So, the $25 million is going to go very quickly because it’s important that these hospitals and these health systems see the ability expand their workforce.”

DeSantis said if the systems put in a dollar, the state will to, “and everybody wins.” He said there were a lot of other “great things” in the budget to come after DeSantis signs it into law, and promised that there would be “significant” funding for expanding educational infrastructure for school districts, state colleges and universities.

“We also have recurring program that has student loan reimbursement and programs and scholarships for nurses, which is something we’re very supportive of,” the governor said. “We also have various programs at different state colleges that we want to continue to support. Some will be new programs, others will be, with things like the Department of Veterans Affairs, to make sure we have salary and recruitment incentives for nurses employed by the department there. Because these are very significant patients and we want to make sure we’re doing right by them.”

The governor said there were other programs for reimbursement and loan repayment “sprinkled throughout” the coming fiscal budget.

“I think we’re putting our money where our mouth is,” DeSantis said. “There would be a need for this anyway, especially for a state that’s growing. And look, I’m not asking for people to move to Florida, like some people ‘please come to my state,’ honestly I like the people we have here, I think we’re doing fine.”

He said it was a free country, people can pick and choose, and that the past two years had shown people voting with their feet to “leave states that were poorly governed, states that had arbitrary and draconian COVID lockdown policies” as well as places that didn’t support law enforcement, leading to what DeSantis called “massive increases in criminal activity and reduction in public safety.” The governor also leveled criticism over education outcomes in states with COVID school lockdowns, comparing them to Florida, saying “there was no change for the worse” by keeping schools open.

“That’s just the reality,” DeSantis said. “It’s a free country. People say ‘could you do like an immigration for Florida for other people?’ And you’re not allowed to do that, under the Constitution. But if I could, maybe I would.”

He said the bottom line was that the state had to look at how the state was growing and the demand for nursing across the country was “more acute” in Florida. Filling the nursing positions the state needed “would have a huge impact” on people, according to the governor. Then he thanked nurses for what they do and introduced Ladapo as the next speaker.

Ladapo thanked the governor for what he’s been doing as the state’s leader, then criticized states who “decided to part ways with nurses that opted out of the COVID-19 vaccines.”

“Then they quickly asked nurses that were vaccinated and were testing positive along with doctors, to come back into the hospital,” Ladapo said. “And I came from one of those states, in California. I remember reading the LA Times story about this change when it happened, and it really demonstrates the absurdity, the degree of absurdity that we have learned to somehow deal with and make it through over the past two years. And it’s wonderful that Florida didn’t do that. It also demonstrates respect for nurses and other healthcare professionals, it’s incredibly disrespectful of people. It basically disregards them, when you see that they’ve been providing heroic service as nurses have done well before during the pandemic and continue to today, and then dismiss them for a personal decision, that they may have chosen, may choose not to do for a variety of reasons.”

Ladapo said it was an important thing to acknowledge.

“I personally, and I know many of you too, appreciate that fortunately Florida never went down that path of disregard for human beings and lunacy,” Ladapo said. “Because it doesn’t make sense, it also happens to be crazy to do that. I practiced internal medicine, hospital medicine, you know, I was a medical student, I started medical school in the year 2000, I started in Boston. I remember, when I was a medical student, I’ve been learning from nurses since the beginning.”

He said he’d always appreciated nurses.

“‏I remember when I was a medical student, there’d be simple stuff,” Ladapo said. “You guys know med students, they have no idea what they’re doing.” He said he’d learned how to do things from the nurses, and when he became a professional medical worker, he appreciated the partnership with nurses.

“They’re a special breed of people,” Ladapo said. “You’ve got humans and you’ve got nurses. They’re super people! They are incredible in terms of their energy and work ethic, they are fearless, they are committed, and devoted at an unbelievable level to the welfare of their patients, and they’re just, they create circumstances and outcomes for their patients that only nurses can do.”

Ladapo said that doctors are considered frontline workers, but when a patient has chest pain and “whatever else is going wrong,” by the time a doctor gets to the room, it’s the nurses who are “really the frontline of the frontline.” He said he had “tremendous appreciation” for what nurses do for their patients and for who they are.

“This legislation, this additional funding for nurse training can yield nothing but good things, because nurses are so important and so valuable,” Ladapo said. “It’s a pleasure to be here, it’s an honor to be here.”

DeSantis came back to the podium and said Ladapo had been doing “a great job,” then gave comment on how Americans viewed healthcare workers.

“Unfortunately over the last couple of years, a lot of Americans, understandably, have viewed people involved in public health as really a menace to their freedom,” DeSantis said. “Force you to take vax or lose your job. Force you to muzzle yourself, even lock you down. All of these different things. I think Joe, from the beginning, has been advocating policies that are based in common sense, that are based really in the accumulated wisdom of prior pandemics and other things. Where they realized a lot of this stuff was not good policy and he’s been willing to lead.”

DeSantis pointed to state health policies for open schools and anti-lockdown stances and anti-masking. He said students were now much better off in Florida without having to wear masks in school, and that Ladapo had been willing to say that.

“You had a lot of these public health authorities rejecting core scientific principles, like immunity through prior infection,” DeSantis said. “I think the CDC it took them, a year and a half to acknowledge there was protection? They’re still wavering on it. That is not confidence inspiring. I think time and time again, we’ve seen a lot of these institutions, I mean first of all you have to say a lot of this garbage to get booked on CNN, that’s just how it works. They’ve constantly done that and I think the result is that people have totally lost trust in a lot of these institutions and a lot of these people. I think what Joe brings in Florida, and people around the country are noticing this, because people will say they like him, they don’t even live here when they run into me, is somebody they can trust. That is not somebody that believes our freedoms are simply expendable, just because a cabal of medical people don’t think that freedoms are worth anything.”

The governor said Florida was a model of doctors able to practice medicine and put their judgments out, even if it doesn’t fit the narrative, saying Ladapo had led the way in that regard.

Shawn Molsberger, senior vice president of Orlando Health’s Northeast Region, spoke next.

“Orlando Health has had a great partnership with Seminole State college for many many years,” Molsberger said. “Seminole State College is a preferred education provider, and this is one way that Orlando Health invests in our own workforce and ensures that we have a community of healthcare workers trained to handle the complex medical needs of a rapidly growing region.”

Molsberger said that Orlando Health’s preferred education program lets team members attend at no out of pocket cost, paying their costs for tuition and text books directly to Seminole State College, “so there’s no waiting for reimbursement.” He said it was a way to help employees advance their careers and remove barriers to professional development, so their staff can “just focus on their education.” But it wasn’t the only partnership available, according to Molsberger.

“The second partnership, which is really really cool and began earlier this year,” Molsberger said. “Is a unique opportunity for nursing students here at Seminole State College to enhance their experience during their senior semester for clinicals. These nursing students get hands-on experience” by training at Orlando Health’s South Seminole hospitals’ Dedicated Education Unit.

Molsberger said they celebrated their first graduating class a week ago, and that the summer session would start soon. He introduced a nursing graduate who spoke about their motivation to be a nurse, and their experiences with Orlando Health. Commentary included support for the funding program to address nursing shortages.

DeSantis spoke briefly on state intitiaves for nursing advocacy and providing more rights to patients and their families, before introducing Senior Chancellor Henry Mack from the Florida Department of Education.

“I would like to take a personal point of privilege to thank my wife, who is also a nurse, 31 weeks pregnant and still going in the hospital,” Mack said, also thanking all nurses and the governor’s leadership. “Knowing firsthand to the points that Dr. Ladapo made about your commitment, your empathy, your dedication and just the outright virtue that you exhibit as professionals, just thank you very much.”

Mack said if it weren’t for the leaderhsip of DeSantis and the state legislature, Florida would not have been able to invest “over $5 billion” in workforce education and training for vocational programs, since 2019.

“This has truly changed the narrative, this has helped us understand the value of a career and technical education program, and not buying into the false belief that everyone needs to go to university in order to be successful,” Mack said. He described the gathered students as proof of that. “With over $1.7 trillion in student debt these days, we know that students can enter a Florida College System institution or a technical college across our 67 school districts, and leave debt free. At many times, you are earning while you’re learning. You are employed, but also being educated, which is just a testament to your leadership, governor.”

Mack then thanked the various educational leaders gathered, and more largely across the state, saying the pipeline program would provide $1.4 million to Seminole State College as recurring funding for their nursing program, and another $1.4 million for Valencia State College. He said it was to Seminole’s credit that they offer adult education for those who don’t have so much as a high school diploma to learn necessary skills and not wasting time. Then he thanked the governor again for helping make the program successful.

DeSantis then opened the floor for questions, after reiterating his expectation that the programs would be a benefit to the state’s nursing efforts and providing more opportunities for better salaries for nurses, thanking them for their desire to help others.

The first question was focused on the coming special legislative session for property insurance reforms.

“This is a market that has been problematic in this state for a long time. People have seen obnoxious rate increases. Part of the reason that happens is because we don’t really ahve a competitive market, and a lot of these companies, major companies, have left the state bedcuse of how hositle the underlying framework is,” DeSantis said.

He referred to his military background and how USAA was typically the company military members used, but that the company doesn’t “do Florida for homeowners insurance,” because of the way they have. DeSantis mentioned how Florida had “8% of property claims nationwide, and 70% of the litigation nationwide,” leading to how the premiums in Florida have escalated.

DeSantis said that efforts had been made in the main session to address the issue, but that the efforts had not been successful. He said calling the special session was because there “was a sense” that the effort would be able to pass.

Addressing the state’s public fallout with the Walt Disney Company over the corporation’s opposition to Florida’s House Bill 1557 – Parental Rights in Education, called “Don’t Say Gay” by critics, DeSantis said the state would not “punish Disney” by relieving them of “$766 million in debt.”

“The same people who criticize me for saying you’re punishing Disney are also saying we’re going to relieve Disney of $766 million in debt? How would that be a punishment, it makes no sense that that would be the case,” DeSantis said. “That debt will not end up going to any of these local governments, it’s not going to go to the state government either. It’s going to absolutely be dealt with with the taxpayers who are currently in that district, and we’re going to have a proposal to make sure that’s clear, and that is 100%. And we understood that.”

The governor said that when state lawmakers had made the legislation and set a June 1, 2023 deadline, “knowing” that not only would Reedy Creek, but other “legacy” special districts with “unacceptable” powers, “all of it would be dealt with.” He said some of the districts may just go away, others may be renewed, but that “with Reedy Creek, the path forward is that Disney would not control its own government in Florida,” that they would have to follow the same laws as every other business in the state, and that “they will pay their fair share of taxes, and they will be responsible for paying the debts.”

“At the end of the day, all we’re doing is putting them on a level playing field with all of the other companies in Florida,” DeSantis said. “Making sure there’s no special privileges, no special deals. But that debt will be honored.”

He said that while some in Central Florida say it’ll make them have to raise taxes, but that “from our perspective, any local government raising taxes is unjustifiable to do that, there’s not going to be any basis to do it, because they’re not going to have any additional liabilities, and you know what, even though there are ways where you could have local communities absorb jurisdiction over Disney, after seeing them threaten to raise taxes on their citizens, we are not going to be in a situation where we’re just going to be giving them locally, control. More likely that the state will simply assume control, and make sure that we’re able to impose the law and make sure we’re collecting the taxes.”

DeSantis pointed to the firefighters, saying they should be making more money, and that the state should lead that effort, than have local governments do so. He said he was worried local governments would use Reedy Creek as a pretext to raise taxes, and again promised the debts would be paid. He called the special districts made before 1968 were “aberrations.”

Touching on the recent appointment of Rep. Cord Byrd as the new Secretary of State, following the resignation of Laurel M. Lee, DeSantis said Byrd has been strong on election integrity and that “we’d be off to the races” and was excited for him to get to work.