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Nurses give Wyden an earful

A dozen veteran nurses told Sen. Ron Wyden Thursday what's wrong with their profession.

The Oregon Democrat stopped at Rogue Valley Medical Center during a swing through Southern Oregon and talked with nurses about changes that need to happen in their profession. He observed that Oregon needs about 15,000 nurses now, and shortages are expected to worsen as aging nurses leave the profession over the next 20 years.

In no uncertain terms, nurses told him hospitals need more nurses, and nurses need better working conditions, to care for today's patients and tomorrow's 70 million aging baby boomers.

Two years ago I had four or five patients a night, said cardiac nurse Elaine Sims. Now I've got six or seven.

I'm 48, and I'm wearing out, Sims said.

Every year we're being asked to do more and more, said Cindy Mosser, 43, an intensive-care nurse. I'm working 60 hours every two weeks because that's all I can handle.

Replacing college-educated nurses with less-educated nursing aides will mean some patients will die, said emergency-room nurse Randy Williams.

It's the high level of care that needs to be there, Williams said, not just the warm body that's been through three months of training to use a syringe.

Nursing education programs have been damaged by budget cuts, said nurse Michelle Hollenbeck. We've got applicants banging at the doors, but they're not putting any money into the system.

Several nurses said colleagues in their 50s have retired early due to the demands of their work, and others have cut back to part-time work. Others cited difficult working conditions exacerbated by patients' expectations.

Patients come in expecting a lot because they're paying a lot, said nurse Patty Quinowski. We're like the waitresses of the medical profession. We get the brunt of their anger because they're not getting the health care they think they deserve.

Barb Geiszler, a recently retired nurse, said she and many others would happily return to work part time to help ease the nursing shortage, but many obstacles deter them. Among those hurdles, she cited Social Security income restrictions that reduce monthly benefits when nurses earn too much, and state Board of Nursing rules that require nurses whose certification has lapsed to work 300 unpaid hours to regain their licenses.

Some nurses go back to work in Nevada, she said, where they must work just 40 unpaid hours to regain their licenses.

It really seems to come down to more properly trained people, working in decent conditions, with adequate benefits, Wyden said. He acknowledged that no single solution can fix the nursing crisis and suggested nurses start on just a couple of projects that can make a dent in this.

He suggested that the Oregon Nurses Association petition the state board of nursing to scale down recertification requirements to some more reasonable figure.

Three hundred hours seems absurd, he said, and promised to work with nurses to scale back the requirement. He also encouraged the nurses union to expand its efforts to recruit high-school and college students.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492, or e-mail