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Budget initiatives bode well for expanding nurse workforce, improving health care

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Sen. Judy Robson
June 8, 2009

The Wisconsin Legislatureís budget-writing committee has approved three measures that will help alleviate Wisconsinís nursing shortage: a nurse workforce survey; a home for the UW School of Nursing to expand capacity; and support for a bachelorís degree nursing program in Rock County.


In these recessionary times, many Wisconsinites have lost their jobs or fear losing their jobs. The state unemployment rate is around 9 percent, and itís as high as 14 percent in some counties. But the demand for nurses continues to grow.


There will be more new jobs for registered nurses in the coming yearsó2,610 a yearóthan any other occupation, according to the Department of Workforce Development.


As more and more nurses near retirement age, the demand for nurses is going up due to the aging of the nationís population. Fifty-nine percent of registered nurses in Wisconsin are ages 40 to 59. Nurses will be retiring in droves in the coming years.


The nursing shortage is not due to a lack of interest in the nursing profession. At UW-Madison, 400 qualified applicants for the School of Nursing were turned away last year because the program could only accommodate 150 new students. There are long waiting lists at technical colleges for students wanting to earn an associate degree in nursingóseveral years long at some schools.


The problem is a shortage of nursing faculty and facilities. The Wisconsin Center for Nursing was founded in 2005 to develop strategies to address the nursing shortage. The Center, a collaboration of nurse educators, practicing nurses and policymakers, proposed using a portion of nurse licensure fees to pay for a statewide survey. The data will tell us where, how many, and what kind of nurses will be needed and available in the future. This data will help us design curriculum to maximize scarce resources.


A second provision puts a new UW-Madison School of Nursing facility on the 2009-11 state building commission list. The School of Nursing currently does not have its own building. Classes are held in several health buildings, and there is only enough capacity to enroll about a quarter of the qualified applicants. The school will emphasize high technology and innovative approaches to delivering quality health care.


Another budget motion allocated $170,000 annually for a nursing program to be operated by UW-Rock County, Blackhawk Technical College and UW-Oshkosh. Faculty from UW-Oshkosh will teach nursing students in Rock County through face-to-face, online and hybrid courses.


Currently, nursing students who earn two-year degrees at UW-Rock County and who want to pursue bachelor degrees in nursing must transfer to four-year campuses in Rockford, Madison, or beyond. Once those nurses leave the area, they donít always come back. This collaboration will reduce that loss of talent.


Sen. Judy Robson, D-Beloit, is a registered nurse and a member of the Legislatureís Joint Finance Committee. She represents Wisconsinís 15th Senate District, which includes Janesville. Readers can write to her at sen.robson@legis.Wisconsin.gov or at P.O. Box 7882, Madison, WI 53707-7882 or call her at 1-800-334-1468.

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