Legislation intended to ease shortage of nurses runs into opposition
May 31, 2023
Alaska’s nurse shortage is widely acknowledged but there’s less consensus on how to manage solutions.
A bill that aims to get nurses licensed and working faster by Alaska joining a 40-state nurse licensure coalition is mired in pushback. Hospitals and the state’s nursing board support the legislation, but nursing labor unions oppose it.
Bill sponsor North Pole Rep. Mike Prax said long wait times for nursing licenses exacerbate Alaska’s shortage because it deters qualified job candidates.
“If someone is a licensed nurse from some other state, and they come up here, it can take several months just to process the licensing application,” Prax said. “And that is a significant barrier to getting a job.”
It takes three to four months to get a nurse’s license in Alaska, even if the applicant already has one in another state, according to the state’s licensing office at the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. Prax said that’s enough time to find another job. The issue first crossed his desk because military spouses found it too difficult to get nursing jobs in Alaska, he said.
The nurse licensure compact allows nurses with a license in their home state to practice in any other state that belongs to the compact. Prax said it would reduce wait times and get more nurses on the floor in hospitals.
He introduced his legislation March 31; it was still sitting in its first House committee when lawmakers adjourned May 17. The measure, House Bill 149, will be back for consideration next year.
Unions say the change would harm Alaska nurses.
“It destroys their bargaining power and their ability to protect themselves on the job,” said Joelle Hall, the president of the state labor union federation, the Alaska Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. She said the compact takes away Alaska nurses’ ability to strike because they could be replaced with a workforce from out of state.
“This is going to be a tool that they use to put downward pressure on nurses and their wages and their working conditions. And everyday nurses are not thinking about that. They’re thinking, ‘I need more nurses at the bedside,’” she said.
Hall called the bill an overreaction and said it doesn’t solve the real problem, which is that there aren’t enough nurses.
“We can’t just trade nurses across state lines and solve the problem. This is a problem of supply. And supply is constrained by universities in our state,” she said. “When we as a state disinvest with the university, we are not meeting the critical need for our workforce.”
Jared Kosin, executive director of the Alaska Hospital and Healthcare Association, said Hall is right—it doesn’t solve the nurse shortage. “But it would be an extremely meaningful step or tool that would be a significant benefit, not just for hospitals and other big employers, it would be for all of the health care industry,” he said.
He said the state has acknowledged it is short-staffed and cannot process nurse license paperwork quickly because of a backlog, so joining a compact is something the state can do now to streamline that work.
“I think it’s one of the most important health care policy bills there is. Because of the benefit it would pay to the state government from a licensing standpoint, or workforce standpoint. And then from a time to licensure, it would streamline things and make a significant impact immediately,” he said.
Kosin was also in agreement with Hall on the importance of Alaska schools. He said those are priorities, too, but they are long-term solutions that will take years to yield results.
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