OLYMPIA — As the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated a health care staffing shortage in Washington and nationally, the Legislature this year provided more than $38 million to nursing programs statewide.
But it was not all equally distributed.
Some schools, like Eastern Washington University, got funding to create a new four-year program while others, including Washington State University, didn’t receive any to bolster current programs. Legislators and university officials say that’s just because of what funding each school requested this year.
Sen. Christine Rolfes, Democratic chair of the Ways and Means Committee from Bainbridge Island, said budget writers looked across the state at what schools were asking for and where the needs were for more funding. The Legislature didn’t provide additional funding to all higher education programs for nursing, she said, but instead, they looked to where they wanted to boost enrollment.
“This was the first time we said, ‘Let’s take a comprehensive look at this,’” Rolfes said. “There’s a nursing shortage crisis, and we had revenue available.”
She said there was a lack of training programs in Eastern’s corner of the state.
Eastern Washington University received $6.1 million in the next two years to expand their current two-year nursing program to a full four-year program.
It was a plan that Eastern had talked about doing a year from now, but with the current nursing shortage and the additional revenue this year, legislators decided to push to provide that funding earlier, Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, said.
Schmick said the university already had a meeting space and a curriculum they planned to use, and they were only waiting on money.
“Because of the nursing shortage, we didn’t want to wait,” Schmick said. “It’s all hands on deck.”
Eastern’s four-year nursing program is still in the planning stage, currently awaiting approval from the state Nursing Care Quality Assurance Commission.
According to a presentation given to the university’s board of trustees, the program will start accepting student applications in January with the goal of accepting the first cohort of 40 students in the fall of 2023. There will be 160 total slots in the program.
The nursing school is in the process of hiring personnel and developing a facilities plan before beginning construction in the near future.
Rolfes said another reason for funding Eastern’s program was because of its location and the attendees it normally gets. She said Eastern often has more of a tradition of students attending that are from high schools in the area, which could “hit a different need.”
Chris Mulick, director of state relations at WSU, said they didn’t ask for funding for new nursing enrollment slots this year. They try keep their budget requests “pretty narrow,” he said.
Mulick said he was contacted by leadership in the House to come up with a cost proposal for expanding nursing slots, but it was never funded.
“That happens,” he said. “We get lots of requests to cost out a program.”
Rolfes said there was no specific reason why Washington State University didn’t get funding this year other than the university didn’t specifically ask for it and legislators did not think it was needed.
A lot of what higher education institutions receive from the Legislature depends on what they ask for, and it varies each year from school to school, Mulick said.
“It’s somewhat rare that you’ll all end up getting money for the same thing,” he said. “We have six public universities that are very different and have very different needs in our state.”
Along with Eastern, three other public higher education programs received funding for nursing education.
Western Washington University received funding this year to create a new master of science and nursing program, which will enroll 10 to 15 students each year.
They will receive $461,000 over the next two years. They also received $433,000 to increase enrollment in their registered nurse to bachelor’s of science in nursing program.
The University of Washington received more than $1.2 million for additional nursing slots at the Seattle and Tacoma campuses.
Technical and community colleges received more than $3.7 million for at least 50 additional nursing slots.
The Legislature also set aside more than $15 million to modernize equipment in simulation labs at community colleges, universities and public high schools. They also allocated $3 million for a nurse educator loan repayment program, which will provide up to $75,000 in loan repayment in exchange for three years of service.
Most of the new slots funded this year won’t be available until 2023, so it may take a few years for budget writers to see whether what they funded this year will be enough supply for the demand, Rolfes said.
There’s a nursing shortage on every education and professional level, Rolfes said. The Legislature will need to figure out what to do to increase the demand for courses in the future.
“In the meantime, we’ve created more supply,” she said. “But we’ll need to see, are those slots going to fill up? Are students going to enroll?”