NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


September 12, 2007

It's been reported that the dysfunctional U.S. immigration system contributes to labor shortages in agriculture.  Less well-known is that low green card quotas have also left the United States with an undersupply of nurses that threatens patient care, says the Wall Street Journal.

Estimates of the nursing shortage vary, but all agree that the coming retirement of 77 million baby boomers means something will have to give:

  • According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics and Department of Health and Human Services project, more than a million new and replacement nurses will be needed over the next decade.
  • Health analysts David Auerbach, Peter Buerhaus and Douglas Staiger cite a lower but still substantial 340,000, though even that is three times larger than the size of the current shortage when it was at its peak in 2001.

Wage increases in recent years have attracted more people to nursing; but despite the interest, faculty shortages and inadequate facilities have prevented nursing programs from expanding enrollment:

  • More than 70 percent of schools responding to a 2006 American Association of College Nursing survey listed faculty shortages as a reason for not accepting all qualified applicants.
  • In 2005 nursing schools rejected 147,000 qualified applicants, citing lack of classroom space and clinical placement sites for students.

The long-term solution here is to increase nursing faculty and teaching facilities, says the Journal.  But in the short run, Congress could help enormously by easing the limit on foreign nurses allowed entry to the United States.  That's what lawmakers did in 2005 when they allocated 50,000 extra green cards with a priority for foreign nurses.  They were used up in 18 months.  About 4 percent of U.S. registered nurses are foreign-trained, which means many hospitals couldn't function without them.

Source: Editorial, "Diagnosis: Critical," Wall Street Journal, September 12, 2007.

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