WASHINGTON (Reuters Health) Nov 01 -
The health committee of the US Senate approved a pair of similar bills on Thursday aimed at easing an emerging nursing shortage at American healthcare facilities.
Both of the bills glided through the committee without controversy, though roadblocks still remain. Key senators are still at odds on the technical details of combining the two measures so that a single package can go to the Senate floor for a vote.
"The existing process for combining a bill is dysfunctional," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who sponsored one of the bills. Mikulski said she had reached "a stalemate" with fellow Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts over how to resolve the disagreement.
Kerry is a sponsor of the "Nurse Reinvestment Act," while Mikulski is one of several senators sponsoring the "Nurse Employment and Education Development (NEED) Act."
Both bills would create a new program to offer scholarships to young nurses in exchange for service in public health hospitals, Indian healthcare facilities, or other shortage areas. The grants would pay up to $400 per month on a sliding scale for nurses in the program.
But there is a key difference: Kerry's bill provides $195 million for the grants over 3 years, while Mikulski's offers $85 million over 6 years. Mikulski's bill contains another $85 million for grants to encourage nurses to obtain advanced degrees.
Experts worry that an aging nursing workforce combined with the imminent retirement of the baby boom generation could leave a nursing shortage of 20% or more in the coming decades.
Each measure calls for a national media campaign to help attract workers to nursing. Both bills also call for a federal hospital grant program aimed at improving workplace conditions for nurses. The goal is to encourage disgruntled nurses to stay on the job.
"Because of the nursing shortage, nurses are often already caring for too many patients, undermining the quality of care," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), who chairs the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
The NEED bill also creates an 11-member national nurse recruitment and retention commission to monitor the profession and report to congress on workforce issues.
Both measures have the support of nursing groups, including the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists. But while an eventual agreement on the two bills seems likely, Mikulski stressed that she was "not amused" by the way negotiations with Kerry's staff were going.
"I can't wait to see how this is all going to turn out," Kennedy said.