Business stalled for Evans Clements' 2-year-old international recruiting firm after the State Department in January sharply restricted visas from the Philippines, India and China.
Clements' Nashville-based company, International MedLink, will place 100 nurses this year with U.S. hospitals, but news of the State Department's action left Clements struggling to bring in business from hospitals wary of a long wait to fill critical vacancies. "They just wouldn't commit," he said. "It was really killing our industry."
Last week Clements, other healthcare recruiters and hospitals seeking to hire foreign-born nurses got good news. President Bush signed the military and tsunami aid spending bill, which included a provision for 50,000 extra visas for registered nurses and physical therapists.
The surplus visas are a boon to hospitals struggling with a chronic need for registered nurses, said Carla Ruggiero, senior associate director of federal relations for the American Hospital Association. "We're very pleased that Congress has responded to pressures that hospitals are now feeling on the workforce front," she said.
The RN shortage, already a problem, is projected to accelerate in coming years. HHS estimates the nation needs roughly 149,400 nurses to meet the current demand. By 2012, that figure will reach about 351,500 and by 2020 the shortage will be 808,400 nurses. "This is not an answer to the nursing shortage, by any means," Ruggiero said. "We would love to have an abundant supply of domestic nurses, but that just can't happen overnight."
The one-time visa bonus is expected to cut wait times for nurses from the Philippines, India and China, which spiked to as long as three years from less than two years after the State Department implemented restrictions in January to keep those countries within annual quotas.
Now it's a question of when and how the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security will release the additional visas, say groups waiting for them, such as hospital recruiters and immigration lawyers.
The Greater Southeast Community Hospital, Washington, is one hospital that stands to gain by the extra visas. The 179-bed hospital contracted with HCCA International, a Brentwood, Tenn.-based international healthcare employment agency, to hire 55 nurses, said Corazon Ballesteros, the hospital's director of nurse recruitment.
Twenty nurses arrived in December 2004, but another seven intensive-care nurses could not receive their visas. Ballesteros said she expects that the seven nurses in immigration limbo will arrive soon. "We are happy it will happen."