EDITORIAL: A study in fixing nursing shortage

Much of the debate about the nation's health care has centered on costs. But there's another fundamental question that's received far less attention: Who will provide care to an aging population in the years ahead?
A report released last year by Dr. Peter Buerhaus and other researchers found that the nation could fall short by as many as 500,000 nurses in the next 16 years, in part because age will thin the current ranks of caregivers.
To meet the demand, the Council on Physician and Nurse Supply, based at the University of Pennsylvania, recommended last year that universities should graduate an additional 30,000 nurses each year. That's far from an easy task, however, in part because nursing schools themselves lack enough qualified instructors.
As Marion Broome, dean of the Indiana University School of Nursing, explains in a My View that will be published in Sunday's Conversations section, most nursing schools in Indiana are at capacity now because they don't have enough faculty to take on additional students.
Many nurses are reluctant to enter the teaching ranks in part because educators on average earn 20 percent less than those who remain in clinical practice. Nursing instructors also must have completed an advanced degree, at minimum a master's, a requirement that often comes at a cost of $25,000 or more in student loan debt. Lower pay, more education and heavier debt create steep obstacles for nurses who want to step into the classroom.
Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, along with Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, has proposed legislation to ease one of those burdens by creating a student loan repayment program. Under the proposal, nurses with master's degrees could receive up to $40,000 to repay student loans if they agree to teach for four years at an accredited nursing school. Nurses with doctorate degrees could receive as much as $80,000.
The bill, called the Nurses' Higher Education and Loan Repayment Act of 2009, is needed primarily to strengthen the nation's health-care system. But the economic development aspects of the bill shouldn't be overlooked.
Nursing schools in Indiana alone turned away more than 2,500 qualified students last year. That's a terrible waste, not only because of the nursing shortage but also because the profession offers good pay and benefits at a time when the state unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent.
A lot of bad ideas have floated off of Capitol Hill in recent months. Bayh and Murkowski have offered a good one. Congress should act on it quickly.