A plan to ease nursing shortage in Indiana and other states by offering student loan help
April 09-- Apr. 9--SOUTH BEND
A shortfall of nurses in this region and other parts of the country has posed a big challenge for medical providers, but a federal bill aims to tackle the problem by offering nurses a chance to pay off student loans by working in the private sector.
The Nursing Where It's Needed Act, introduced this month by U.S. Senators Todd Young (R, Ind.) and Doug Jones (D, Ala.), would allow more medical providers within "health professional shortage areas" to participate in the NURSE Corps Loan Repayment Program by expanding its eligibility to include for-profit providers.
As it stands, only nonprofit and public-sector providers may be certified for the program. In exchange for two years of service at certified sites, the program pays for 60 percent of unpaid nursing education debt for registered nurses and advanced practice registered nurses.
In St. Joseph County, records show 15 facilities are currently certified for the program. Among others, sites include Memorial Hospital, Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center, St. Joseph County VA Clinic and the St. Joseph County Health Department.
In north-central Indiana, St. Joseph, Elkhart and Marshall counties are eligible for certified sites under the program. That is because based on their low-income populations, the counties are classified as health professional shortage areas.
Young was not available Tuesday afternoon for comment.
But Amy Grappone, a spokeswoman for Young's office, said in an email that "in light of the opioid epidemic and other health challenges Indiana is facing, Senator Young wants to ensure that the patients who reside in the most vulnerable and medically underserved areas, like South Bend, have much needed access to nursing professionals."
The South Bend Clinic, a for-profit multi-specialty group that is physician-owned, might qualify for the program under the proposed bill, said Kelly Macken-Marble, the organization's CEO.
"If that is the case, I see that as a win," she said. "Any opportunity to incentivize additional nurses to go into practice is a benefit."
Macken-Marble said because the area's large nonprofit health systems offer higher wages, it can be difficult to compete for nurses. There are now openings for 12 various nursing positions at the South Bend Clinic.
"It's always been a challenge to hire nurses in the for-profit setting, and it's because we cannot compete with health system wages," she said. "Offering the loan repayment might have nurses think about the clinic, even though we can't offer the same wages."
The proposed bill could also be a boon for nurse training programs, such as the one at Ivy Tech Community College in South Bend.
Darlene Geoghan, the college's dean of nursing, said 55 to 70 students graduate with associate of science degrees in nursing, and many of them go on to earn bachelor of nursing degrees at other colleges.
"Any funding source that can help a student advance their career and have less money to pay back is a very positive thing," she said. "Demand for nurses here locally is high, and it's a multifactorial problem. Students need money to come to school, and schools need money to expand and hire trained faculty."
Geoghan added that Ivy Tech is looking to launch a nurse training program at its campus in Elkhart County to help meet demand for nurses.
"There's an aging nursing population," she said, "so nurses will need to be replaced."
If the loan repayment program is expanded, many opportunities could open up in the private sector for nursing professionals to pay off their loan debt while working, said Jesse Hsiegh, a Granger-based family practice physician.
Hsiegh said private practices, for example, need advanced practice nurses (also called nurse practitioners) to keep up with the volume of patients. A shortage of physicians has created demand for nurse practitioners.
"It's become a ratio of one physician to two nurse practitioners for average practices across the country," said Hsiegh, who is also vice chairman of the board of directors for Beacon Health System, the nonprofit parent organization of Memorial Hospital.
But Mark Fox, deputy health officer for the St. Joseph County Health Department, has a different perspective on the proposed bill. He worries that in some cases, it could cause nurses to take higher-paying jobs at private practices instead of working for nonprofits or in the public sector.
"You get people to work in undeserved areas by removing the financial disincentives of working in the lower-paying sector," he said. "If you then extend that to include for-profits that might be at the higher end of the pay scale, unless it draws significantly more people into the county, then what it's done is siphon people away from areas that are lower-paying."
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