Health Kentucky Politics

Kentucky lawmakers hope a new bill advancing in the legislature would alleviate the state’s long standing nursing shortage, though some industry officials say the measure needs to go further.

Senate Bill 10 unanimously passed out of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Wednesday. It would ease regulations on the industry–offering temporary work permits to out-of-state nurses and lifting caps on how many nurses Kentucky colleges and universities can train each year.

Senate President Robert Stivers, a Republican from Manchester and sponsor of the bill, said it would help address the shortage proponents say has been ongoing in the state for more than a decade.

“It has been evident and become more exacerbated and apparent during this last couple of years with the COVID pandemic and what has occurred,” Stivers said.

Supporters say the bill would add to the state’s current nursing workforce by allowing nurses licensed in other states or countries to receive temporary work permits and licenses, not only places that are part of the Nurse Licensure Compact with Kentucky. 

The proposal would also remove caps on enrollment at schools with an 80% or greater licensure completion rate over a rolling three-year period, and redesign the Kentucky Board of Nursing to better reflect the community needs statewide. 

According to the Kentucky Nurses Association, there are around 89,000 nurses licensed to work in the state but the industry still needs between 12% and 20% more workers.

Dolores White, an assistant professor at Northern Kentucky University, said Kentucky has one of the worst nursing shortages in the nation.

“Even before the pandemic, a perfect storm was brewing with an aging workforce, burned out nurses and strong feelings of feeling undervalued,” White said. 

Delanor Manson, executive director of the Kentucky Nurses Association, said the bill is a good start, but more needs to be done.

“We need to appreciate those nurses,” Manson said. “They are not getting the appreciation in the facilities where they’re working, patients and family members are treating them with incredible disrespect. And somehow we have to help them understand that they are being appreciated.”

The Kentucky Nurses Association has asked the legislature to set aside $100 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to attract and retain nurses in the industry. The sweeping proposal includes retention bonuses for nurses, efforts to improve graduation rates in nursing schools and loan forgiveness for nurses who work in underserved areas.

There are currently 2,000 APRNs who have left the state for more freedom in their careers elsewhere, Manson said. 

She also proposed bolstering education and retraining to help gain back some of the 5,000 retired nurses in Kentucky, improving pay for educators and campaigning to show nurses who have stayed that their work is valued. 

Sen. Denise Harper Angel, a Democrat from Louisville, voted in favor of the bill, but also threw her support behind the effort to pay nurses more.

“I do think the greatest improvement could be if we had some retention money set aside in our budget to really work toward keeping our nurses long term in Kentucky,” Harper Angel said.

Sen. Ralph Alvarado, a Republican from Winchester, pointed out that he’s filed a bill to use federal relief money to retain nurses, though the measure hasn’t been heard in committee yet.

“Some of those issues have already been looked at. Not all of them have to be in one singular bill,” Alvarado said. “This has been part of an issue where we’ve had a shortage for a long time.”

Aprile Rickert is WFPL's health reporter.