Lawmakers are attempting to address Washington’s nursing shortages with funding for education and training

Laurel Demkovich and Arielle Dreher / The Spokesman Review

OLYMPIA – Washington’s Legislature is debating a series of proposals to attract more people into the nursing profession.

Ideas being considered include helping students pay off student loans and creating nursing programs at universities in east and west Washington.

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

Nursing shortages and the pipeline problem predated the pandemic in Washington, and in years past adjusting the salaries of nursing educators at community colleges has helped, program leaders say. But they argue that more is needed. In 2020, nursing programs in the Inland Northwest were not accepting even half of the applicants who apply each cycle, and a recent survey of nursing union members found that 49% of them were considering leaving the industry in the next few years.

A bill up for a vote in a state Senate tax committee would create a payback program for nursing educators. It would allow nursing educators teaching for an approved nursing program to apply for loan repayment grants.

Nursing educators must have an advanced degree in nursing.

Nursing educators who are faculty members for an accredited nursing program would qualify. The bill seeks to address a problem common to many four-year nursing programs in the state: Nurses with advanced degrees can make much more money in this field than they can in teaching.

An advanced degree needed to teach is also expensive.

Louise Kaplan, an associate professor at Washington State University’s College of Nursing and a practicing family nurse, said the cost of graduate school is a major barrier to nurses interested in becoming educators.

“If you have family responsibilities or you have to work, how do you balance and pay for it?” She said. “It’s expensive to get a degree.”

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

Sen. Emily Randall, chair of the Senate Higher Education and Human Resources Development Committee, said Thursday the Legislature spent a significant amount of time in this session discussing the importance of expanding the nursing workforce.

Ensuring educators can pay off their student loans is an important part of building the nurses’ pipeline and ensuring educators stay on the job, Randall said.

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

The bill was unanimously approved by the Committee on Higher Education and Human Resource Development. It now goes to the Senate Committee on Ways and Means.

Susan Stacey, executive director of Inland Northwest of Providence Health and Services, said the nursing educators bill will help bring the nurses the state “much needs” into the field.

“These are the types of programs that I believe will make a difference when it comes to increasing the number of nurses,” Stacey said.

The Washington State Hospital Association supports the nurse educator loan forgiveness program, but Executive Director of Government Affairs Ashlen Strong acknowledged there was more work to be done, such as:

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

“The reality is that even with the forgiveness of loans for nurse educators, they still aren’t paid competitively,” Jaffe said.

The Washington State Nurses Association, which represents thousands of nurses statewide, supports the Loan Payback Act, calling it “healthy” legislation because of the support it gives to educators. The union hopes to attract more nursing educators to the field, the association said in a statement.

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

This proposal has divided the hospital association and unions over what they believe is most effective for recruiting and retaining health workers.

Proposed government budgets at this session do not include money for bonuses or salary caps, instead focusing on education and training.

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

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

The Senate proposal provides Eastern Washington University with more than $6 million over the next two years to create a Bachelor of Science in Nursing program.

The House proposal does not provide for funding for the program at the Eastern School, but shares much of the same ideas for nursing education as the Senate.

Both the Senate and House of Representatives have proposed funding to establish a Master of Science in Nursing at Western Washington University, as well as funding to increase undergraduate enrollment at the university.

Both proposals also include funding for the Nursing Quality Assurance Commission to hire 10 staff to process nursing applications to reduce processing time. Last year’s budget set a seven-day standard for turnaround time, but the commission is currently flipping licenses to 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 laboratory equipment, and a proposal to help community colleges increase the number of places and graduates in their programs.

Advocates and educators agree that multiple approaches are needed to address the state’s nursing shortages, and this session’s attempts are likely to be just a few.

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

“We need to think about how we can better fund college education so we have more opportunities for people to get their college degrees,” she said. “I think we need more scholarship money and maybe better supplements to lower tuition.”

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