Both parties can agree on working to solve the looming nurse shortage

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The nation is rapidly growing grayer and more ethnically diverse. 
Today, about one in seven Americans is 65 or older. In less than 15 years, one in five Americans will be there, a percentage that will continue to rise. Meanwhile, the Census Bureau projects that by 2044, more than half of all Americans will belong to an ethnic group other than non-Hispanic white, and by 2060, nearly one in five Americans will be foreign born.  
{mosads}These massive demographic shifts will put enormous strain on a healthcare system ill-prepared for it. Case in point: America’s looming nurse shortage. 
The largest component of the healthcare workforce, nurses play an indispensable role in the provision of healthcare. But in the years to come, the demand for nursing services will dramatically outstrip the supply — all the more so because of the 20-plus million people who gained access to healthcare under the Affordable Care Act.
In this new healthcare environment, the skills of nurses — and specifically, advanced practice nurses — will be especially valuable. Averting any shortfall will require policies from Washington aimed at making the most of those who enter the nursing profession. 
Advanced practice nurses, a professional category that includes nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, clinical nurse specialists, and nurse anesthetists, possess a higher level of medical expertise, training, and decision-making authority than traditional registered nurses.  
These advanced practice nurses are able to run primary care clinics and manage the treatment of medical issues from sinus infections to diabetes and hypertension. When medical facilities employ advanced practice nurses, physicians are able to reserve their time for specialty and complex cases. 
The quality of care these nurses provide is consistently excellent. In one recent study, the health outcomes of primary care patients treated by advanced practice nurses were just as good as those for patients treated by physicians. In many cases, patient satisfaction was actually higher for those who were treated by advanced practice nurses.
Moreover, the versatile skill set of these nurses, ranging from diagnosing patients to record-keeping, case-management, and conducting physical exams, makes them well-suited to provide healthcare services to populations that would otherwise be underserved. Clinics staffed by a nurse practitioner can make a huge difference in poor urban or rural areas where the nearest physician is a long way away. 
Unfortunately, shifting demographics won’t just increase the demand for nurses — it will also reduce the supply. The average age of a working registered nurse is over 50, and nearly half of our 2.7 million nurses will reach retirement age within the next 15 years.  
Nursing schools aren’t producing nearly enough graduates to provide the 1.2 million new nurses our nation will need by 2030. A lack of faculty, classroom space, and other resources forced nursing schools to turn away more than 64,000 qualified applicants in the 2016-17 academic year. 
Without an effort to train enough nurses to meet the needs of an older, more diverse nation, America’s health system may be pushed past the breaking point.
On this front, there’s much that lawmakers in Congress can do, starting with providing healthcare and educational institutions with the resources to train the next generation of nurses
For one, they can allocate more funding towards Title VIII Nursing Workforce Development programs, which support nurses practicing in rural and medically underserved communities, nursing diversity grants, the National Nurse Service Corp, nurse faculty loan forgiveness, and geriatric education. Lawmakers could also expand the Graduate Nurse Education demonstration initiative, a program that currently reimburses qualifying hospitals for the cost of training advanced practice nurses
Congress should also seek to remove regulatory barriers that prevent advanced practice nurses in many states from making full use of their knowledge and skills. 
In Alabama, for instance, a nurse practitioner must have a physician present 10 percent of the time in order to practice. When nurse practitioners in Missouri treat a new patient, that patient is required to see the collaborating physician within two weeks.  
There’s ample precedent for rolling back such outdated regulations. Just last year, the Department of Veterans Affairs amended its rules to allow advanced practice nurses to do everything their training and certification empowers them to do in any VA facility in any state. Congress should follow the VA’s lead and override onerous state restrictions, allowing advanced practiced nurses full practice authority.  
Not all healthcare reforms need to inspire bitter partisan conflict like the one happening in Washington. Commonsense reforms to avert a nursing shortage deserve the support of both parties — and are essential to cope with our coming demographic upheaval.
Sheldon D. Fields, Ph.D., RN, FNP-BC, FAAN, is Dean of the School of Health Professions at New York Institute of Technology.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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