Thank you Chairman Boehner and Representative Miller for this opportunity to testify before my colleagues on the Education and Workforce Committee. I have always been proud to serve on the Education Committee, but I am especially proud today because we are focusing on an issue that is very important to me personally and professionally.
Mr. Chairman, before coming to Congress, I spent 30 years as a nurse on Long Island. And even now, I know that there isn't a better career in the world than nursing or better training for being a Member of Congress. The only difference is now I have a lot more patients.
That's why I am particularly saddened when we talk about the nursing shortage. And let's be honest, right now we are in the middle of a national nursing shortage crisis. Of the estimated 2.5 million licensed nurses in our country, 400,000 have left the profession for other pursuits.
In the year 2000 alone, Long Island had an 8 percent RN vacancy rate and a dangerously low 16 percent LPN vacancy rate. It's startling to learn that hospitals need about 126,000 nurses to fill all the nursing positions available today!
Mr. Chairman, the crisis will only get worse in the future. As the baby boom generation ages, the demand for more nurses will dramatically increase, as well. And like the general population, the nurse workforce is aging, while enrollment in nursing education programs have dramatically declined over the past five years.
Between 1995 and 1998, there was a 21 percent decrease in the number of people enrolling in nursing schools. In addition, enrollment in Bachelor of Science in Nursing programs was down 5 percent in 1999.
This is especially troubling when taking into account that nurses have been leaving the field at record rates. The booming economy of the '90s increased job opportunities for practicing nurses. But reductions in Medicare reimbursements resulted in a shift from inpatient to outpatient care, leaving the most ill patients in the hospital, creating a more stressful environment for nurses who stayed in the field.
High-risk patient care areas such as the intensive care unit, and the emergency room, which require highly skilled nurses with significant experience have been affected the most by the shortage. As a nurse, I can tell you that getting the right care in the first 24 hours of being in an intensive care unit can make all the difference in whether or not you recover from life-threatening problems.
Further, if you do survive, the kind of care you receive in the first 24-to-48 hours dictates how long your recovery will take. When I speak to health care professionals or visit hospitals in my district, I hear the same thing from nurses I meet: "I love my job, but the sacrifices I make are too great."
Let's be honest - nobody ever went into nursing to make money, but like our teachers, they deserve better. And like teaching, nursing has traditionally been a profession made up mostly of women. In 2000, less than 6 percent of nursing positions were held by men. Over the past 20 years, professional opportunities for women have grown greatly.
Many women who years ago would have gone into nursing in the past are now breaking new ground in technology, business, and politics. Unfortunately, what hasn't changed over the last 20 years is how much we pay our nurses.
Nurses go into the field because we want to help people - we want to make a difference in their lives. One thing nurses will not tolerate is inferior care to their patients. Unfortunately, that's exactly what happens when a hospital is short-staffed; it is impossible to give quality care to patients.
Mr. Chairman, we have outlined the problem, now, what about the solutions? There are many things we can do to combat worker shortages. First, we need to recruit qualified, dedicated students. Our students have so many choices for careers today, we need to make nursing a competitive option. One way to do this is to increase funding for the Nurse Loan Repayment Program and designate the income as non-taxable.
We need to further increase reimbursement rates to hospitals, so they can increase nursing salaries. If nurses were compensated as other professionals, more students will want to enter into the profession.
Lastly, we have to create incentives for nurses to stay in nursing upon training completion. We should provide grants to encourage nurses to upgrade their skills in clinical specialty areas that have shortages. We must work with our hospitals to improve working conditions for our nurses.
Mr. Chairman, solving the nursing shortage was extremely important before Sept. 11 and now more than ever it is vital to our nation's healthcare. It is my privilege to share this panel with Melissa from Washington DC and Lisa from Falls Church, VA. Two nurses who responded to our national tragedy and worked diligently to save lives of our wounded. I commend them for their hard work and the hard work of all our emergency personnel and look forward to their testimony.