Most of Idaho is rural. Most nurses in Idaho are not. A bill aims to remedy this.

The Idaho Senate Health and Welfare Committee introduced legislation in the Senate on Tuesday that would encourage nurses to take jobs in rural Idaho.

Health care facilities have long struggled to fill jobs in remote mountain towns and border areas of Idaho. In some of these communities, a nurse practitioner may be the only primary care provider available for miles.

Legislation, Senate Bill 1287, would create a state-funded student loan repayment program for nurses who work in rural Idaho towns.

The bill creates a bucket, and the Legislature would then have to appropriate the money to fund the program, which is proposed at $250,000 per year.

Idaho Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, left, represents a rural area with a critical access hospital. She said the region, like much of the United States, had lost nurses to high-paying travel jobs and burnout from the pandemic. (Image via Idaho In-Session)

“We have set a goal of 10 nursing graduates per year to be recruited from rural Idaho,” Randall Hudspeth, executive director of the Idaho Nursing Center, told the committee during the introduction of the bill on Tuesday. “Now it would be nice if we could recruit more, but based on (recent history) the state, 10 is a realistic goal.”

“It’s a crisis for rural hospitals”

Over a recent two-year period, Idaho lost 26% of its rural nursing workforce, Hudspeth told the committee.

This workforce brain drain happened just as a pandemic was inundating small Idaho hospitals, as reported by the Idaho Capital Sun and other news outlets.

“In 2020, I identified some concerning trends regarding the nursing workforce in rural Idaho and the migration of nurses,” Hudspeth said.

There were 6,459 registered nurses in rural Idaho in 2018, according to Hudspeth. That number fell to 4,755 in 2020, he said.

Many rural Idaho nurses left their communities for Boise, the greater Treasure Valley, and other metropolitan areas such as Twin Falls, Pocatello, and Coeur d’Alene. Others left their jobs for traveling nursing, retired, went back to school to earn advanced degrees, or found new careers.

About 46% of all registered nurses in Idaho now live in or around Boise, he said.

“This is a crisis for rural hospitals. It is also a crisis for long-term care agencies and other agencies that employ RNs in the community and are dependent on a resident nursing workforce,” Hudspeth told the committee.

“What concerns us the most is that … there are (rural) hospitals without nurses that could close, and what the literature teaches us is that when a hospital closes in a rural community, in the 18 months, providers – mainly doctors – will leave the community because they don’t have a hospital,” he said.

Hudspeth: Student loan incentives ‘one of several mitigation strategies’

Similar state and federal programs attract more graduates to rural areas by offering to help them repay or cancel their student loans. the national health service is for healthcare workers traveling to shortage areas – all rural areas of Idaho are eligible.

Map showing Idaho's primary health care provider shortage areas, with all counties except Ada County designated HPSA
Idaho’s Primary Care Shortage Areas are federal designations for places without enough trained professionals to provide general health care to the public. All areas except Ada County are designated HPSA in Idaho. (Map courtesy of the Idaho Department of Health and Wellness)

There are specific programs that help with student loans for specialists working in rural Idaho, such as veterinarians Where behavioral health clinicians in areas hard hit by opioids.

The average student loan debt for Idaho nursing school graduates is nearly $26,000, Hudspeth told the committee.

The new program would be open to licensed practical nurses and registered nurses.

RNs are the backbone of Idaho’s hospitals and LPNs are the backbone of long-term care facilities, but they both work in every health care setting imaginable.

Nurses in the program are expected to work in rural areas or in designated “critical access hospitals”.

CAHs make up more than half of Idaho’s hospitals; without them, people in these communities would have to fly or drive long distances to seek hospital care.

Hudspeth said the plan has the support of the Idaho Hospital Association, Idaho Health Care Association, Rural Health Association, all schools of nursing and nursing associations in Idaho.

Comments are closed.