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Nurses, nursing students take concerns to state Capitol

Profession wants to address worker shortage

POSTED: February 12, 2008 5:03 a.m.

dgilbert@gainesvilletimes.com

ATLANTA — Hundreds of nurses and nursing students descended upon Georgia’s Capitol Thursday to share their professional concerns with legislators.

Dahlonega resident and registered nurse Cindy Balkstra, who is currently president of the 2,400-member Georgia Nurses Association, said the students attended seminars in the morning to learn about the legislative process, and the nurses met one-on-one with lawmakers in the afternoon.

"We have five main goals we want to accomplish this year, but probably at the top of everyone’s list is addressing the nursing shortage," Balkstra said.

Toni Barnett, head of the nursing program at North Georgia College & State University, said the problem isn’t that there’s a lack of people wanting to become nurses.

"Each year for the last three years, we’ve had over 500 applications for 100- to- 150 slots," she said. "All the schools are the same way."

The issue, Balkstra said, is that there aren’t enough instructors to teach these aspiring students.

"We need competitive compensation," she said. "To become a professor, I might spend three to five years going to school to get a Ph.D., and I would still make less money than I make at the hospital."

She said the situation is getting critical because many current instructors will be reaching retirement age within the next 10 years. "We are asking the Board of Regents to address the issue," she said.

Inadequate pay is at the root of another shortage: public health nurses. These professionals work at local health departments throughout Georgia, providing immunizations, educating the public and monitoring outbreaks of infectious diseases.

"Right now, we have many (job) vacancies because the salaries are pitifully low," Balkstra said. "Public health nurses are state-funded, so their pay is a legislative issue."

The GNA also wants the state to establish a think tank, most likely located at a university, that would collect and analyze data on shortages of health care workers in Georgia.

"Such centers are common in other states," Balkstra said. "It would be extremely significant to have one here because a huge shortage of health care workers is predicted for Georgia."

She said the center would initially collect data on nurses, but would later expand to include other health professions.

Georgia also lags behind most states in another aspect: criminal background checks for newly licensed registered nurses. Georgia has no such requirement, but surrounding states do.

"We feel that background checks are important to protect the public," Barnett said. "We’re worried that maybe nurses who couldn’t get licensed in other states are coming into Georgia."

Balkstra said the Secretary of State’s office has taken an interest in the matter and that there will probably be legislation introduced this session to address the loophole.

She is less optimistic about getting action on an issue that the GNA has been advocating for years: easing restrictions on nurse practitioners.

They thought they had scored a victory two years ago, when the General Assembly finally passed a law allowing nurse practitioners to write prescriptions. But their ability to do so is still tangled in red tape.

"We haven’t been able to make much progress," said Balkstra. "We got the law passed, but rules and regulations set by the board of medicine do not reflect the new law."

State law allows doctors to set up "protocols" so that the nurse does not have to get the doctor’s permission each time she writes a prescription. But physicians say the medical board’s rules prohibit them from doing this.

Balkstra said nurse practitioners are disheartened by the situation, and they’re seeking help from their elected officials to resolve the impasse.

About two dozen graduate students from NGCSU’s nurse practitioner program accompanied Barnett to the Capitol Thursday, hoping to ensure that once they graduate, they’ll be able to practice as they’ve been trained.

Balkstra said a total of about 500 nurses and students from all across Georgia showed up for Thursday’s events.

"We’re very pleased with the turnout," she said. "It was far more than we expected."



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