Two hospitals facing critical nursing shortages may get their prayers answered.
A new bill introduced in Congress Oct. 29 may allow foreign nurses to work in the United States as they did until a nationwide program for nurses expired recently.
The Health Professional Shortage Area Nursing Release Act of 1997, introduced by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), will allow 500 foreign nurses to enter the U.S. each year for the next five years: 50 nurses per year for states with more than 10 million people and 25 for states with fewer than 10 million.
St. Bernard Hospital in Chicago initiated the request for congressional intervention. The 220-bed Catholic medical center is the last of three hospitals that once operated in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago and the area's largest private employer. Because of the neighborhood's high crime and poverty, St. Bernard can't fill all its nursing positions with U.S. citizens, the hospital contends.
The Immigration Nursing Release Act of 1989 ended in September 1995. Efforts to renew the visa program failed because of opposition from nurses' unions. However, lawmakers allowed noncitizen nurses already in the country to stay until the end of this past September.
In making its case for the current legislation, St. Bernard recently documented its difficulties finding nurses. Recent ads drew several hundred responses; but "when people found out where they had to go for the interview, they didn't show up," said Larry Suffredin, a lobbyist for the hospital.
If the bill fails to be approved, St. Bernard will face heavy burdens.
"I can't tell you St. Bernard will close tomorrow," said Steve Nemerovski, another lobbyist for the hospital. "But they almost closed in '92, principally over this (nursing) issue. If they don't get an adequate supply of nurses, the hospital will have to cut back on services."
In recent years, 15% to 20% of St. Bernard's 200-nurse staff has come from overseas, mainly the Philippines, according to the lobbyist.
Another hospital, in Laredo, Texas, faces similar difficulties meeting nursing demands.
Nursing shortages at 330-bed Mercy Regional Medical Center stem mostly from a growing population, a growing home-care industry wooing nurses in the area and cultural adjustments stemming from the hospital's proximity to Mexico, said Michelle Stokes, vice president of patient care.
"We have done everything to try to correct this problem," she said. "We have recruiters from all over the country looking for nurses, we have placed ads, and we support programs in nursing schools. However, these efforts are still not successful in filling our needs."
Both St. Bernard and Mercy rely on temporary nurses to cover their demands. However, these nurses' higher wages drain financial resources.
Many congressman support the current bill, including the panel's chairman, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.). Other key members of the Illinois and Texas delegations are gearing up to help St. Bernard and Mercy.
"It's a good cause," said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) "I really think we're dealing with an extraordinary situation."
Still unknown is whether state and national nurses' union groups will support the measure or at least remain neutral. Durbin's support assumes the unions won't come out in opposition.
"We have some concerns," said Barbara Dermody, a lobbyist for the Illinois Nurses Association. "Right now we have nurses and students who aren't able to find jobs."
She added that St. Bernard's inability to fill jobs "didn't compute to me."
The American Nurses Association "does not have a position on this legislation," a spokeswoman said. "And I don't know when we'll have a position."
However, Service Employees International Union Local 73, which represents healthcare workers in Chicago, has expressed grudging support: "If this is what it takes to keep the hospital open and healthy, we can do nothing else but support it," said the union's president, Thomas Balanoff, through a spokeswoman.