A bill to license nurses faster in Alaska faces rejection from unions

Close-up of a nurse pushing patient in wheelchair at hospital
(fake images)

Alaska’s nursing shortage is widely recognized, but there is less consensus on how to manage the solutions. A bill that aims to get nurses licensed and working faster by joining Alaska in a 40-state nurse licensing coalition is mired in rejection. Hospitals and the state board of nursing support the legislation, but nursing workers’ unions oppose it.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Prax, R-North Pole, said long wait times for nursing licenses exacerbate Alaska’s shortage because it deters qualified applicants.

“If someone is a licensed nurse from another state and they come here, it can take several months just to process the license application,” Prax said. “And that’s a major barrier to getting a job.”

It takes three to four months to obtain a nursing license in Alaska, even if the applicant already has one in another state, according to the state’s licensing department, the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. Prax said that’s enough time to find another job. The problem first crossed his desk because military spouses found it too difficult to get nursing jobs in Alaska, he said.

The nurse license agreement allows nurses to be licensed in their home state and practice in any other compact state. Prax said that will reduce wait times and have more nurses on the hospital floor.

Unions say the plan hurts Alaska nurses.

“It destroys their bargaining power and their ability to protect themselves on the job,” said Joelle Hall, president of the state union federation, the Alaska Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. She said the pact eliminates the ability of Alaskan nurses to strike because they could be replaced by a workforce from out of state.

“This will be a tool that they will use to push down on nurses, their wages, and their working conditions. And everyday nurses aren’t thinking about that. They’re thinking, ‘I need more bedside nurses,’” she said.

Hall called the bill an overreaction and said it doesn’t solve the real problem, which is not enough nurses.

“We can’t just trade nurses across state lines and solve the problem. This is a supply problem. And the supply is restricted by the universities in our state,” she said. “So when we as a state divest from college, we are not meeting the critical need for our workforce.”

Jared Kosin, executive director of the Alaska Hospital and Healthcare Association, said he’s right: It doesn’t solve the nursing shortage.

“But it would be an extremely significant step or tool that would be of significant benefit, not just to hospitals and other large employers, but to the entire healthcare industry,” he said.

She said the state has recognized that it is short-staffed and unable to process nurse license paperwork quickly due to a backlog, so joining a compact is something the state can do now to expedite that work.

“I think it’s one of the most important health care policy bills out there. Because of the benefit it would pay to the state government from a licensing standpoint or from a workforce standpoint. And then from the time of licensing it would simplify things and have a significant impact right away,” he said.

Kosin also agreed with Hall about the importance of Alaska schools. He said those are also priorities, but they are long-term solutions that will take years to show results.

Forty other states have joined the pact. Kosin noted that Washington, a state whose health care facilities work closely with those of Alaska, recently joined. Hall said Washington nurses compromised with their state: They joined the pact, but they compromised with favorable ratios of nurses at the bedside.

“If they offered that, we would definitely sit down and talk,” he said. “But they won’t.”

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact editor Andrew Kitchenman with questions: [email protected]. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.