Nurse shortage spurs reimbursement bill

There is a shortage of nurses in Alaska, and people like Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, are working to repair it.

Sen. French’s Senate Bill 8, first introduced in January of last year, seeks to offer loan repayments for nursing students who are educated and employed in the state while receiving their education and during their loan repayment period.

“Nine of the 10 fastest growing occupations are in the health care fields,” French said, citing a 2003 Department of Labor report. ”And the job with the greatest projected numerical increase is registered nurses, with 4,100 new jobs over the next 10 years. It is obvious that there is a shortage of nurses affecting health care in Alaska, and I am in office to fix problems.”

The bill, if passed, would repay up to $10,000 in student loans for nursing students during a period of at least five years. The loans must be accumulated while training to become a nurse and the individual must be hired to work as a nurse on or after July 1, 2005. They must work in Alaska during the loan repayment period, according to the bill’s provisions.

The bill’s sponsor’s statement indicates that additional regulations may be implemented and that guidelines may be revised as needed. It also proposes that the loan repayment program be administered by the executive director of the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education.

“I think the thing about nursing is that we’re very afraid that we will not have the nurses that are going to be needed _” that are going to be vital for the health of Alaskans,” said Jean Ballantyne, the director of the School of Nursing at UAA.

Looking down the road and preparing for what will happen next is part of Ballantyne’s job, she said. The bill aims to not only help pay the education costs for nursing students in Alaska, but also hopes to draw in students from other states as well. The goal is to train and retain all the students in Alaska. If the financial barrier that might be holding some students back from seeking their education can be removed, Ballantyne said, that is just one added benefit.

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Others think the bill will spur additional changes for other degree programs at UAA.

John Wilcox is the USUAA government-relations director. He said he sees the proposed bill as part of solving the problem, but thinks that more is needed to fully address the issue. In addition to affording an education, there have to be adequate facilities for students to learn in. The proposed new science building at UAA is part of solving the nursing shortage in Alaska, but the benefits of the building will go to more than just one department, he said.

“With full-funding of the Integrated Science Facility, we’ll not only see a large expansion of our lab

space, but we’ll finally see labs at UAA that are better than labs that can be found in some high schools throughout Alaska,” Wilcox said. “With the construction of the (new science building), we’ll see a jump in the numbers of nursing students, engineering students and other science-intensive majors that UAA currently offers.”

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