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State Sees Critical Shortage of Nurses, $72m Proposed for Healthcare Education

Hartford Healthcare CEO Jeff Flacks said on Thursday that the system plans to hire 1,000 more nurses this year, plus at least 1,000 nurses each year for the next five years. 

But first, he needs to find the workers. 

Kelli Vallieres, Chief State Workforce Officer at the Office of Workforce Strategy, said during a Thursday press conference that Connecticut is facing “a critical shortage” in nurses and other workers in the healthcare field. As of the start of this year, she said, healthcare and social assistance positions had the highest number of job postings than any other type of job across the state of Connecticut.

It’s not just private hospital systems that are facing shortages. 

The Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services is struggling to find mental health workers, which limits the number of beds that can be made available to patients. Currently, one bed is available for the state’s inpatient programs, 15 beds are available in the intensive care programs, and three beds are available in the state’s group homes. 

Gov. Ned Lamont has proposed allocating $72 million from the state’s coronavirus relief funds toward supporting healthcare students and universities that train nurses and healthcare workers. The funds include $20 million in tuition support for students, $35 million to increase faculty in the healthcare programs and $17 million loan forgiveness for students. His proposal will need to be approved by the state legislature. 

Alejandro Duque, a nursing student in an accelerated program at the University of St. Joseph, said  federal financial aid didn’t cover the full cost of the program for him, and he had to make up the rest with private loans. He said he hoped the proposed funding would help minority students and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds be able to pursue nursing. 

“Nursing truly was a calling for me,” he said. 

According to Vallieres, the current nursing programs in the state can’t keep up with the demand — while there are 12,000 students interested in enrolling in nursing or healthcare programs, there are only 2,800 available seats — meaning that less than one in four students who apply are accepted into one of these programs. 

“We’re graduating approximately 1,000 less students a year than is needed to fill the current demand for nursing every year,” said Vallieres. 

Lamont emphasized a desire to make it attractive and possible for young people to enter the workforce by investing in not just traditional nursing programs, but also accelerated courses for people who can’t commit to a multi-year program.

“We’re trying to do everything we can… to encourage young people to take on these incredibly important professions – starting here at Hartford Healthcare, starting here with nursing — and make it just a little bit easier for you to do so,” said Lamont.  

Terrence Cheng, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, said that six of Connecticut’s 12 community colleges have nursing programs, three of the four universities offer bachelors and masters degrees in healthcare and Charter Oak State College offers a RN to BSN online course. He said he planned to use the funds to create 1,000 more open seats in nursing and behavioral health programs. 

Commissioner of the Department of Public Health Manisha Juthani said that the student loan forgiveness program would make it possible for healthcare workers to work in underserved communities or in specialties where the pay is lower.

“Healthcare is a calling. People who joined the healthcare profession did it because of a feeling deep inside to help others. It’s a service,” said Juthani.

Flacks said that along with training nurses, efforts have to be made to keep them in the state once they receive their degrees. He said that Hartford Healthcare, which has also invested $7 million in healthcare programs, planned to increase the number of student placements by 20 percent over the next two to three years. 

Lamont said that the accelerated programs and the scholarships were a way of saying “thank you” to the nurses for their hard work during the pandemic. 

“I just urge you to do a couple things — stick with us, keep being a nurse,” he said. “I also want you to encourage your friends. Let them know what an amazing, important vital profession it is to be a nurse…Nursing is a wonderful profession. We need you more than ever.” 

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