Nurses told a House committee grappling with how to fix the nation's emerging nursing shortage to fix working conditions. The five-hour hearing in late September was further evidence that federal lawmakers are struggling with what to do about the unmet demand for caregivers.
"This is really about an underutilization of a talent pool that already exists," said U.S. Rep. George Miller, of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee. Government studies haven't yet shown that a national nursing shortage exists but have revealed that only 82% of licensed nurses were employed in nursing in 2000.
A staff nurse from 791-bed Washington Hospital Center said eliminating mandatory overtime, setting better nurse-to-patient ratios and giving staff nurses a voice in hospital policy were more important than higher pay. "Until you fix the working environment, the salary issue is kind of mute," said Melissa Velazquez, who works in the burn intensive-care unit and treated patients injured in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon.
The American Hospital Association supports legislation to increase Medicare funding for hospitals so wages can be increased and to create more nursing scholarships. The American Nurses Association wants federal money for scholarships and other efforts to get more nurses into the "pipeline" but also places a priority on eliminating mandatory overtime.
Three days after the Sept. 25 hearing, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson called the growing nursing shortage "one of America's most serious health problems," as he awarded more than $27.4 million in nursing scholarships and educational loan repayments for nurses working in shortage areas. Thompson also called on hospitals and clinics to improve working conditions for nurses.
"There are too many nurses that go into the profession and, because of regulations and because of bad working environments, they leave too soon," Thompson said.
Grants totaling $20.1 million will go to 82 colleges and universities to help more students pursue bachelor's and advanced nursing degrees. Also, $7.3 million will go to repay the educational loans of nurses who agree to work in designated shortage areas for two years.
The Nurse Reinvestment Act, a bipartisan House bill with nearly 200 co-sponsors, would provide nearly $350 million over three years for scholarships for nurses willing to work in underserved areas and other support of nurse-education programs.
"We are a little bit concerned that Congress seems more willing to throw money at education than to address the stickier issues of the workplace environment," said Erin McKeon, associate director of government affairs for the ANA.