Legislature seeks to address Washington’s nursing shortage by funding education and training

Laurel Demkovich and Arielle Dreher/The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA — The Washington legislature is debating a number of proposals to entice more people to become nurses.

Ideas under consideration include helping students pay off student loans and creating nursing programs at universities in eastern and western Washington.

“We have put a lot of effort into training and helping people on the ground,” senior budget writer Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said of the Senate budget proposal.

The nursing shortage and pipeline problem predates the pandemic in Washington, and in recent years adjusting salaries for community college nursing educators has helped, program officials say. But they argue that more is needed. In 2020, nursing programs in the Inland Northwest weren’t even accepting half of the applicants who applied each cycle, and a recent survey of nursing union members found that 49% were considering leaving. industry over the next few years.

A bill awaiting a vote in a state Senate tax committee would create a loan repayment program for nurse educators. This would allow nurse educators who teach under an approved nursing program to apply for loan repayment grants.

Nurse educators must have a graduate degree in nursing.

Nurse educators who are faculty members of an approved nursing program would be eligible. The bill aims to address a problem found in many four-year nursing programs in the state: Nurses with advanced degrees can make significantly more money in the field than in teaching.

A higher degree, which is necessary for teaching, is also expensive.

Louise Kaplan, an associate professor at the Washington State University College of Nursing and a family nurse practitioner, said graduate school costs are a huge barrier for nurses interested in becoming educators.

“If you have family responsibilities or have to work, how do you balance and pay?” she says. “It’s expensive to get a graduate degree.”

The exact amounts, service required to be eligible, and penalties for those who fail to fulfill their service obligation would be decided by the Washington Student Achievement Council.

Sen. Emily Randall, chair of the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, said Thursday that the Legislative Assembly spent a lot of time this session talking about the importance of expanding the nursing workforce.

Ensuring educators are able to repay their student loans is an important part of building the nursing pipeline and ensuring educators stay on the job, Randall said.

Sen. Jeff Holy, R-Spokane, said he hopes the bill will provide adequate resources that will allow nurse educators to “help us prepare for the next generation.”

The bill was passed unanimously by the Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee. He now heads to the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Susan Stacey, executive director of Providence Health and Services’ Inland Northwest, said the nursing educator bill will help get caregivers the state “desperately needs” into the field.

“These are the types of programs that I think are going to make a difference in increasing the number of nurses,” Stacey said.

The Washington State Hospital Association supports the nurse educator loan forgiveness program, but Senior Director of Government Affairs Ashlen Strong acknowledged there is still much to be done, such as improving recruitment in rural areas and enabling more nursing students to do clinical rotations.

Improving nursing educator salaries is also important, said Darcy Jaffe, the association’s senior vice president for safety and quality.

“The reality is that even with the loan forgiveness for nurse educators, they are still not paid competitively,” Jaffe said.

The Washington State Nurses Association, which represents thousands of nurses statewide, backs the loan repayment bill and calls it “common sense” legislation because of the support it provides for educators. . The union hopes it will attract more nurse educators to the field, according to a statement from the association.

Unions representing nurses and other healthcare workers are also advocating for legislation that would establish patient-to-staff ratios to ensure patient safety and retain staff.

This proposal has divided the hospital association and unions over what they think will be most effective in recruiting and retaining healthcare staff.

State budgets proposed for this session do not include money for bonuses or retention, but instead focus on education and training.

Rolfes said the Senate discussed a bill that would have provided bonuses, but there was “a lot of uncertainty” surrounding the idea.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan told reporters that the House budget proposal also focuses more on bringing nurses into the pipeline by funding additional student slots, financial aid and a significant amount of new equipment. He said it was the quickest and easiest way to prepare nurses to enter the workforce.

The Senate proposal provides more than $6 million over the next two years for Eastern Washington University to create a bachelor’s degree in nursing program.

The House proposal does not include funding for the Eastern program, but it has much the same ideas for nurse education as the Senate proposal.

Both the Senate and House have proposed funding to establish a master’s degree in nursing at Western Washington University, as well as funding to increase enrollment in the university’s undergraduate program.

Both proposals also include funding for the Nursing Quality Assurance Commission to hire 10 staff to process nursing claims to shorten turnaround time. Last year’s budget set a seven-day standard for turnaround time, but the commission is currently handing out licenses in 12 days, according to the proposal.

Other proposals include one-time funding for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and community and technical colleges to purchase or upgrade lab equipment and a proposal to help community colleges increase the number of slots and of graduates in their programs.

Advocates and educators agree that there are several approaches needed to address the state’s nursing shortage, and the attempts in this session are likely just a few.

Kaplan said she doesn’t think this year’s budget will accomplish everything.

“We need to think about how to fund higher education better so that we can have more opportunities for people to graduate,” she said. “I think we need more scholarships and maybe better supplements to get tuition lower.”

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