I accompanied my mother to a routine doctor's visit where her doctor said the reason for the long waits in emergency rooms is the lack of nurses. Though registed nurses make an average salary of $56,888, the U.S. has in 2005 a shortage of 126,000 nurses. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that this country should have 800,000 too few nurses by 2020. So why such a lack of nurses? According to Joan Fitzgerald's "Getting Serious About Good Jobs" in November 2006 The American Prospect 500,000 nurses have left the profession. Why? Health care industry has not increased salary for nurses, but insisted on higher patient loads, mandatory overtime, "greater speedups, stress, safety worries"--so these deteriorating working conditions drive RNs to leave.
So what has been the federal government's response to the nursing shortage? The Bush Administration and the hospital lobby want Congress to pass the Brownback Amendment which means removing all caps on hiring foreign nurses. Also the Republican Congress and the American Hospital Association has refused to support nurse's unions legislation to set nurse-patient ratios and eliminate mandatory overtime. The Republican Congress had, of course, underfunded existing programs to give loans and scholarships to student nurses.
My mother was a RN for many years, and her salary as well as my father's was crucial for our family. She started studying nursing when during World War II, when the U.S. government was facing another nursing shortage so the Congress country passed the Bolton Act setting up the Cadet Nurse Corps to train nurses. My mother joined the Nurse Corps in Pittsburgh. Through this program the federal government gave student nurses like my mother room, board, a free education, and a small monthly stipend of $20 for spending money. Cadet nurses had to promise they would nruse in military or civilian programs for the duration of the war.
The federal government also gave funds to nursing schools willing to accelerate their program of study and provide student nurses with their primary training within two and a half years. For the last six months of training cadet nurses worked in civilian or military hospitals, alleviating the critical nursing shortage. When the program was discontinued in 1948, it had graduated 150,000 nurses. In the middle of her program, my mother got pregnant. Since pregnant women weren't allowed, she had to drop out, but she finished her nursing degree years later at the free-tuition Los Angeles City College's RN program, which was discontinued (nursing programs are money losers for the community colleges).
I have many students now studying in the junior colleges to be nursing, but they struggle paying much higher tuition than my mother paid and much higher book costs than my mother did. The government isn't doing anything to help them. So now we have Democrats in Congress who should make it priortity to change federal policy in order to train more nurses. In 5 years we could wipe out the nursing shortage just as we did in the mid 1940s.
Currently the Nurse Education Loan Repayment Program repays 60-85% of a student loans for nurses who will work for two years in a hospital with a staff shortage while the Nursing Scholarship Program provides scholarships to students who make the same committment. Both programs are terribly underfunded, turning away 82% of applicants for loan repayment and 94% of applicants for the scholarships. The Democratic Congress could fully fund these two programs and even increase the funding of both programs. Thousands of high school and college students would be attracted to nursing programs if they could get loan repayment or scholarships.
A second problem is U.S. nursing programs rejected 150,000 qualified applicants since these programs lack faculty, classroom or lab space, or clinical training sites. Nursing teachers are offered low-pay (less than what they would make outside teaching) so few nurses want to teach. Also, since nursing programs are money losers, they have either been closed like at LACC or kept very small. Fitzgerald said, "New York funds community colleges, hospitals, unions and other partners to advance into RN and other-health related professions." She reports that state of Washington provides money to two community colleges to increase nursing teacher salaries. The Democratic Congress needs to imitate the New York and Washington programs to increase nursing teacher salaries (no more part-time but full-time jobs), provide funds for more classrooms and labs, as well as fund hospitals to serve as training sites.
Finally, the Democratic Congress needs to have policy to improve job conditions to reduce the number of nurses leaving the profession. Because of the huge successful battle that California nurses fought against Governor Schwarzeneggar, California regulates nurse-patient ratios. The Democratic Congress can follow the recommendations of the nurses' unions to nationally regulate nurse-patient ratios and elminate mandatory overtime. If we don't reduce nurse workload, many will continue to leave nursing. Who wants to be in a hospital with too few nurses? Also the recent ruling throwing some nurses out of their unions because they were wrongly classified as "supervisors" needs to be overturned. Fitzgerald argues that nursing overwork is a problem that needs Congressional attention if we want to keep the nurses we train.
Also, Congress needs to reject the Brownback Amendment removing caps on hiring foreign nurses. That amendment will just drive the salaries of nurses lower; nurses will still be overworked and underpaid, and they will still leave nursing by the thousands. People will get worse care from harried, underpaid stressed out hurses.
Congress sets policy that effects whether health care jobs--nursing and others-- are decently paid with humane working conditions or so poorly paid with inhumane job conditions that trained people leave. A government should take care of our national welfare: making sure its making sure its citizens have good health care as well as making sure its trained health care professional have the good salaries and decent working condition so they can do good work. Just as we did in the mid-1940s we can easily erase the nursing shortage within a few short years.
Also, all of us or our family members or friends will end up in an emergency room or a regular hospital. Do we want poorly paid understaffed nursing? If we don't, we need to ask the newly elected Demoratic Congress to fund nursing scholarship and loan programs; pass legislations to increase funding for nursing training programs nationwide; nationally regulate nurse-patio ratios; elminate mandatory overtime for nurses; and reject the Brownback Amendment, keeping caps on hiring foreign nurses. It's about time we start fighting to improve our health care system since we all will rely on it.