A bill to get nurses licensed more quickly in Alaska faces pushback from unions

Close-up of a nurse pushing patient on wheelchair in hospital
(Getty Images)

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

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

“If someone is a licensed nurse from some other state, and they come up here, it can take several months just to process the licensing application,” Prax said. “And that is a significant barrier to getting a job.”

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

The nurse licensure compact lets nurses have a license in their home state and practice in any other compact state. Prax said that will reduce wait times and get more nurses on the floor in hospitals.

Unions say the plan harms Alaska nurses.

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

“This is going to be a tool that they use to put downward pressure on nurses and their wages and their working conditions. And everyday nurses are not thinking about that. They’re thinking, ‘I need more nurses at the bedside,’” she said.

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

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

Jared Kosin, the executive director of the Alaska Hospital and Healthcare Association, said she’s right—it doesn’t solve the nurse shortage.

“But it would be an extremely meaningful step or tool that would be a significant benefit, not just for hospitals and other big employers, it would be for all of the health care industry,” he said.

He said the state has acknowledged it is short-staffed and cannot process nurse license paperwork quickly because of a backlog, so joining a compact is something the state can do now to streamline that work.

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

Kosin was also in agreement with Hall on the importance of Alaska schools. He said those are priorities, too, but they are long-term solutions that will take years to yield results.

Forty other states have joined the compact. Kosin pointed out that Washington, a state whose health care facilities work very closely with Alaska’s, recently joined. Hall said Washington nurses compromised with their state — they joined the compact, but got a commitment to favorable nurse ratios at the bedside.

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

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