With communities across the country facing nurse shortages, federal and local agencies have joined the movement to use unconventional methods to attract new nurses.
Three federal agencies-HHS, the Education Department and the Labor Department-announced earlier this month that they will collaborate to address the "severe shortage of nurses in the United States." The secretaries of those agencies plan to sign a memorandum of understanding that will serve as a springboard for coordinated efforts to recruit, train and place nurses.
The agencies were set to reveal details of their initiative this month but have postponed the announcement, citing scheduling conflicts. In the meantime, as industry groups including the American Hospital Association develop strategies to confront staffing challenges, states and localities are taking action on their own.
Officials in Orange County, Fla., launched a $1.5 million program last month through which nurses and other healthcare professionals can receive up to $7,500 for a down payment on a new home. In exchange for debt forgiveness, nurses commit to working five years in area hospitals.
"The nursing shortage, in my view, is a public policy issue," said Orange County Commissioner Ted Edwards. Nurses, he said, "serve a much-needed, valuable public purpose, and to the extent that there is a shortage of nurses, the government and public sector should be looking at ways to attract people into the nursing profession."
The nurse vacancy rate in Florida climbed to 15.6% last year from 11.3% in 2000, according to the state hospital association. The two largest health systems in Orlando-Florida Hospital and Orlando Regional Healthcare System-recently reported more than 500 nurse vacancies among their 24 hospitals in the state.
Nationally, the nurse vacancy rate as of fall 2001 was 13%, according to an AHA report released in April on the state of the healthcare workforce (April 15, p. 10).
Against this backdrop, the Orange County Board of Commissioners last month signed off on the housing grants, prompting a barrage of inquiries from nurses, as well as from emergency medical technicians, home health aides and nurse practitioners, who also qualify for the assistance. Officials expect to provide housing assistance to at least 100 nurses in the first year of the program.
The county's nurse recruitment initiative is funded through Florida's State Housing Initiative Partnership Program, which distributes roughly $5.5 million annually to the county. Officials expect to distribute $1.5 million of that money to nurses and to teachers, whom the county also assists as part of a similar program.
To be eligible for grants, nurses must fall within the "very low, low or moderate income categories" and select homes that cost no more than $126,000, according to the county.
The shortage "is going to get a lot worse before it gets better," said Eileen O'Grady, a nurse practitioner and policy analyst with the Center for Health Policy Research and Ethics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "The industry has got to do something, and they haven't really done much."
In the case of Orange County, it's not even the industry acting but government agencies that view the nursing shortage as a community problem requiring a multipronged solution. "Our goal is not so much to provide the down payment (money) but to encourage people to go into and remain in the nursing profession, and to do it in Orange County," Edwards said.
Officials representing HHS and the Education and Labor departments declined to provide specific information on their nascent collaboration to recruit nurses. They said details would be shared at a public event that had not been scheduled at deadline.
An official at the American Nurses Association confirmed that the three agencies intend to sign a memorandum formalizing their partnership, but she could not provide additional details.