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From the Desk of Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy: June 12, 2009

Protecting, Supporting and Increasing America’s Nurses

On Thursday, June 4, Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy introduced three pieces of legislation focused on the state of nursing in the nation. The bills, the Student-to-School Nurse Ratio Improvement Act of 2009, Nurse Training and Retention Act of 2009 and a resolution recognizing the need for safe patient handling and movement, are a series of initiatives addressing such issues as increasing the number of school nurses, fixing the nation’s critical nursing shortage and improving workplace safety for nurses.

McCarthy, a nurse for over 30 years, has been at the forefront of issues regarding nursing throughout her tenure in the House of Representatives and was successful in including several nursing education provisions in the historic reauthorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act last year.

“Nurses are on the front lines of our nation’s healthcare system. For many Americans, nurses are the first point of medical intervention and are vital to the overall health of our nation,” McCarthy said, adding, “The United States is currently experiencing a severe nursing shortage and we are unable to meet our current and future healthcare needs. These three bills offer a comprehensive nursing agenda and improve the opportunities and work environments for nurses and those who wish to become nurses. It is my hope that these bills will become a part of the comprehensive healthcare reform bill that is currently under consideration in Congress.”

The following are brief descriptions of the three bills introduced by McCarthy to protect and support America’s nurses:

Student-to-School Nurse Ratio Improvement Act: School nurses are on the frontline of healthcare. In many underserved areas, school nurses are the only contact that children have with health care. Also, with the rise in the number of children with chronic diseases such as asthma and diabetes, children today are requiring more specialized medical care. Even though school nurses play such a vital role, many schools around the country do not even employ a qualified school nurse, and many others do not have enough nurses to deal with large student populations. The need for school nurses has never been more clear than during the recent Swine Flu outbreak.

This bill would establish a grant program to provide states with the money necessary for them to hire more qualified school nurses.

Nurse Training and Retention Act: America faces a severe nursing shortage, which is growing worse. At a time when Congress is attempting broad healthcare reform, we must address this issue. Primary care and preventative care must be a part of the health reform passed by Congress. The improvement in health outcomes and the financial savings that can be realized by focusing on primary care and preventative care are too large to ignore.

As we shift the focus of our healthcare to a model that focuses on prevention, we must have the infrastructure in place to provide these services. After all, expanding health coverage to all Americans does no good if that coverage does not provide the care that people need. Nurses are a critical part of that infrastructure. They are the largest health care workforce in the nation and are the backbone of hospitals, community clinics, and school health programs. The importance of nurses in a strong, well-functioning healthcare system cannot be overstated.

The Nurse Training and Retention Act of 2009 would establish a grant program through the Department of Labor designed to provide a new supply of nurses and nurse educators. Grants would be awarded to facilities to provide a career ladder for other healthcare workers to receive the training needed to become a nurse, provide further training for currently serving nurses, and provide for the hiring of more nurse faculty.

Resolution Recognizing the Need for Safe Patient Handling and Movement: Unfortunately, nurses are often at risk for preventable, on-the-job injuries associated with patient lifting. Registered nurses and other health care workers are being asked to lift and transfer unreasonable loads, with the average nurse lifting 1.8 tons during the course of an eight-hour shift. As a result, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has consistently rated “registered nurses” and “nursing aides and orderlies” in the top 10 of all United States occupations reporting on the job injuries resulting in days away from work. The costs associated with musculoskeletal injuries in the health care industry are estimated to be a staggering $20 billion annually.

The costs to our healthcare system from injuries are not only financial; studies have shown that 12 percent of nurses leave the profession permanently every year because of back pain, and 47 percent of nurses have considered leaving the profession because of the physical demands of their job. At a time when it is becoming difficult to hire enough nurses to meet the growing demands of our population and we are facing a severe nursing shortage, it is essential that we retain the veteran, experienced nurses already on staff.

Devices to assist nurses with the safe lifting and transferring of patients exist, but 54 percent of nurses have reported that these devices are not readily available for use in their healthcare facility. We must do a better job in making these devices available for use by nurses and other health care workers. This resolution supports our nurses by encouraging safe patient handling and movement methods and recognizing that manual patient lifting is associated with high rates of injuries for health care workers.