ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s most severe nursing shortage since the 1980s has turned into a crisis, and with constant complaints from patients about the poor quality of care they’re receiving, legislators are looking to the commission they created in 2000 for answers.
The Statewide Commission on the Crisis in Nursing is almost two and a half years into its five-year run, and its progress thus far is receiving mixed reviews.
“I’m glad the commission is so actively pursuing answers, but in the meantime, the (nursing) crisis is probably growing worse,” said Sen. Paula Hollinger, D-Baltimore County.
Hollinger, a registered nurse who sponsored the original legislation that created the commission in March 2000, did not call the commission a failure or a success, she just said, “it is a work in progress.”
The commission’s past legislative successes include the creation of nursing school scholarships, limiting overtime and whistle blower protection for all health care workers in the state. But then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening vetoed a popular recommendation to allow nurse practitioners to serve as primary caregivers, a move that prompted Hollinger’s resignation from the panel.
“The commission is doing the best it can, it is tackling a very big and complicated issue in a very organized way,” said Delegate Marilyn Goldwater, also a registered nurse and original bill sponsor of the bill.
Goldwater said she considers the commission successful in identifying problems and offering solutions.
“Now we have to make the solutions work, which takes money, and that’s very difficult right now with the budget,” she said.
Maryland is facing a $1.2 billion shortfall for fiscal 2004.
Hollinger acknowledges that there exist solutions that are not legislative. However, immediate solutions have to be out there. “We can’t be just talking to each other, we have to get things done,” she said.
“Here we are back in the Legislature and nothing has crossed my desk in months,” Hollinger said.
Most problems associated with the nursing shortage cannot be remedied through the state Legislature, said Maryland Hospital Association Vice President Catherine Crowley, a registered nurse.
The commission, she said, has provided something that has not existed in the past, “a forum for conversation about what’s good for nursing across the state.”
The commission has been successful in bringing together a variety of disciplines – nurses, hospital administrators, educators, nursing school administrators and lawmakers. It has also had legislative success, said Delegate Adrienne Mandel, D-Montgomery, an original sponsor of the bill and member of the commission.
However, Delegate Mandel said she also has not seen any nursing legislation yet, “that doesn’t mean we (the commission) are not active,” Mandel said.
Several pieces of health care legislation are on the docket for the 2003 General Assembly, according to Pamela Owens, assistant director in the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s governmental affairs office, but there is no mention of any upcoming nursing legislation.
The commission held its first meeting of the year last Jan. 10. Arlene Stephenson, acting DHMH secretary, ominously opened the meeting by saying her department is facing major budget cuts.
The department will lose $50 million by June 2003, and its workforce will be trimmed 10 percent, she said.
In the meantime, up to 4,120 Maryland hospital positions are unfilled, more than 2,000 of them nursing positions. This number has been steadily increasing since 1997, according to a personnel survey conducted by the Maryland Hospital Association in 2001.
Nationally, estimates put the shortage of nurses at 400,000 by 2020.
The commission’s 2001-2002 report is due to the General Assembly at end of month. The commission’s next meeting will be in April and a midpoint assessment is due in the spring.