Immigration: More Foreign Nurses Needed?

The U.S. nurse shortage is getting worse, but are more visas the answer—or would improved training capacity, working conditions, and pay do the trick?

For more than a decade, the U.S. has faced a shortage of nurses to staff hospitals and nursing homes. While the current recession has encouraged some who had left the profession to return, about 100,000 positions remain unfilled. Experts say that if more is not done to entice people to enter the field—and to expand the U.S.'s nurse-training capacity—that number could triple or quadruple by 2025. President Barack Obama's goal of expanding health coverage to millions of the uninsured could also face additional hurdles if the supply of nurses can't meet the demand. 

Some lawmakers are looking to the immigration pipeline as one means to raise staffing levels. In May, Representative Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) introduced a bill that would allow 20,000 additional nurses to enter the U.S. each year for the next three years as a temporary measure to fill the gap. If the bill doesn't pass on its own, lawmakers may include it in a comprehensive immigration reform package. Obama is slated to meet with congressional leaders on June 25 to discuss reforming U.S. immigration laws. 

Hospital administrators such as William R. Moore in El Centro, Calif., a sparsely populated town 100 miles east of San Diego, see the Wexler bill as a potential life raft. Moore is chief human resources director at El Centro Regional Medical Center, a 135-bed public hospital that typically has 30 open positions for registered nurses (RNs). While it's hard to lure nurses from nearby big cities (San Diego is 100 miles west), Moore says he could quickly recruit dozens of eager, qualified nurses from the Philippines if the government allocated more visas. "All we want is temporary relief," says Moore. "Let us get a group of experienced RN hires from the Philippines, and we won't ask for more."