Published on 2/12/02
Lawmakers want to tackle problem
By MARSHA SHULER
Capitol news bureau
Louisiana is facing critical shortages of nurses and other medical professionals, and two key lawmakers want Gov. Mike Foster to do something about it.
Sen. Tom Schedler and Rep. Rodney Alexander, chairmen of legislative health committees, are asking Foster to address the problem in a planned special legislative session beginning in March.
The lawmakers and others warned that expanding opportunities for women outside of nursing have slowed the supply of new nurses, creating a nursing work force that is aging and sometimes dangerously overworked.
The shortage in that and other health fields could result in cutbacks in patient services and unsafe conditions for patients and health workers, they said.
Schedler, R-Slidell, and Alexander, D-Quitman, said addressing the shortage is consistent with Foster's goal of using the special session to enhance economic development through creation of good-paying jobs.
"I don't think it's a stretch to argue that this is economic development. It's an existing industry. Certainly health care for our citizens is an important item," Schedler said.
Foster aide Andy Kopplin said the administration is aware of the problem and is awaiting specific proposals.
"We are very interested in seeing what we can do," Kopplin said.
As part of its economic-development push, Schedler said, the administration is pushing gene therapy and a cancer center in New Orleans so the state can be on the cutting edge of medical advancements.
"But we need a work force that will be able to sustain it," Schedler said.
Schedler said the New Orleans area has a nursing shortage approaching 1,000.
"And there are 5,000 to 6,000 (nursing vacancies) statewide that we could fill today," he said.
Schedler said it is not just nurses. There are also shortages of pharmacists, respiratory therapists, and radiology and medical technicians, he said.
The lawmakers are working with the Louisiana Hospital Association and the CARE Coalition to develop a plan for administration consideration as it plans the agenda for a planned March 25-April 19 special session.
Various ideas are being discussed, including:
*Grant and loan programs to help those interested in training and working in health jobs with shortages.
*More emphasis in vocational-technical schools that train many health workers.
8Changes in degree requirements to encourage more people to study nursing and related fields.
*Establishing a major state commission to address the problem.
LHA executive John Matessino urges a joint venture involving key players in the private sector and representatives of the state departments of Labor, Health and Hospitals and Economic Development as well as the Board of Regents, which oversees higher education.
"We know we need to do career recruitment, education strategies," Matessino said.
"We are trying to get the message out that health care is an industry that employs a lot of people who pay a lot of taxes," he said.
Matessino said a survey is being done to get hard numbers on health-job vacancies as of March 1.
At Our Lady of the Lake Medical Center, X-ray technicians seem to be the most difficult to find, and "respiratory therapists are right up there," chief executive Robert Davidge said.
Davidge said complicating the shortage of pharmacists is that the only pharmacy school in the state -- University of Louisiana at Monroe -- has expanded its degree program from four to five years of study.
"They aren't graduating anyone for two years," he said.
Meanwhile, more and more pharmacies are opening, Davidge said.
Louisiana Nursing Home Association director Joe Donchess said every nursing home in the state could use four more nurses' aides; one out of two could use a licensed practical nurse and at least one out of five a registered nurse.
In addition, "There is a big turnover rate with nurses' aides," Donchess said.Fewer people are going into nursing these days, he said. "Our schools are not producing the numbers," Schedler agreed. "It's putting tremendous strains on the system. It causes errors."
Schedler said health professionals end up working long hours under stressful conditions."That could be deadly," he said. "We are going to have a worse situation in five years of almost critical proportions," Schedler said.
Schedler said there is an aging population of nurses and an insufficient number of new nurses are coming into the work force.
According to the hospital association, of nearly 37,000 registered nurses living in Louisiana, more than half are over age 40 and only about 5,000 are under age 30. Schedler said wings of hospitals will have to close.
"I've been talking to nursing homes and hearing the same story," he said.At one time nursing and teaching were the main jobs of young women entering the work force, but that has been changing. "Young girls have a lot more opportunities," he said, with more pay, better working conditions and hours.