Sununu pledges $24M investment in nursing education

  • Gov. Chris Sununu (left) pledges a budget request for nursing education programs at Manchester Community College on Tuesday. Ethan DeWitt / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 10/23/2018 1:40:01 PM

Gov. Chris Sununu will request a $24 million capital investment into the state’s nursing education programs if re-elected, he announced Tuesday, pledging “the most robust investment ever” into fixing a persistent nursing shortage.

Speaking before students and educators at Manchester Community College, which runs licensed nursing assistant and registered nurse programs, Sununu presented a plan to boost training for intermediate and advanced nursing certifications through the state’s community college and university systems.

The proposal, set to be included in the governor’s budget request if he’s re-elected, would use one-time expenditures to attempt to revive programs that have been dropped in recent years after flagging demand and resources. The plan would hope to kickstart licensed practical nurse (LPNs) programs in the community college system, create a nurse practitioner program at the University of New Hampshire, and increase class sizes and graduation rates for registered nurse programs.

“We’re focusing on our nurses, we’re focusing on advanced manufacturing – exactly what our needs are,” Sununu said. “Will we see the results tomorrow? No, we won’t. But two, three, five, 10 years down the road – this is what you have to plan for.”

The New Hampshire healthcare industry has been ravaged by nursing workforce shortages in recent years – chiefly in lower paying, lower certified positions – as graduates chase higher salary opportunities out of state. Nursing homes have faced particular challenges; with fewer resources and lower salaries, they’re increasingly passed over by students gravitating to better-paying hospital positions.

Presently, 1,309 openings exist for registered nurses (RNs) across the state, which require at least four years of intensive study, according to the Department of Employment Security. The numbers suggest the demand is likely to persist: The state is estimated to have 1,169 open positions for LPNs – which require less study – annually through 2026, according to the department.

For Natalie Sailor, a Newbury RN student at Manchester Community College who watched the governor’s speech among two dozen of her peers, the financial realities are often more powerful than the incentives offered by the state, particularly in nursing home care.

Sailor, who hopes to practice in pediatrics and eventually get a Master’s degree, says she has plenty of peers interested in geriatrics who would seem perfect fits for nursing homes.

But with RNs at hospitals earning around $28 an hour out of the gate and LNAs at nursing homes earning $14, the choice can often feel like an obvious one, she said.

“When you do look at the hospitals’ versus nursing homes’ (salaries), sometimes there is that gap,” said Sailor, who works at Dartmouth-Hitchcock hospital in Lebanon. “It can make a difference.”

Ross Gittell, Chancellor of the Community College System of New Hampshire, acknowledges the recruitment barriers faced by nursing homes. But he said the community college system is designed to accommodate students who would like to work alongside their studies – and that, in turn, alleviate some of the workforce shortage.

“Not every family can afford for their young people to be about the labor market to get their associate’s degree,” he said. “So the LPN provides the on- and off-ramps.”

Using state funding to restore LPN programs could allow those studying towards their RNs to use their LPN to fill health care jobs in New Hampshire in the meantime, which could benefit nursing homes, Gittell said.

According to Manchester Community College President Susan Huard, about a third of the college’s RN students already do use their lower certifications to work in the field.

That includes Alex Thibodeau of Weare, who uses her LNA as she studies for an RN, and who works around the state for a nursing staffing agency. Though some students choose to throw their time and effort into the more lucrative RN degree, Thibodeau chose to work her way up to the degree at the advice of her mother, a nurse practitioner.

“She recommended that I get an LNA before I started to give me an appreciation of the different roles and have that kind of respect for the people you’re working with,” Thibodeau said. “So you’re working more as a dynamic team rather than as someone who’s less than or more than.”

But for Thibodeau, who has worked in nursing homes through her agency, the environments are still stressful and the low pay doesn’t help.

“They’re always short staffed, which makes it so when I go in – I’m working for a staffing agency – I’m helping them with being short staffed. So it’s hard,” she said.

On Tuesday, Sununu argued his budget could help turn the tide.

Under the governor’s proposal, schools would receive one-time funds to create the new training programs; tuition would be expected to sustain the programs in later years. Some of the proposed funding would go to capital projects at UNH to build space for the new programs, the governor said. The plan also involves the creation of new computer science programs at Plymouth State University, he said.

A spokesman for Molly Kelly, Sununu’s Democratic challenger for governor, dismissed the announcement as “another election year promise” that would likely be dropped. And the spokesman, Chris Moyer, pointed to past efforts by Kelly to bring together stakeholders in the Monadnock Region as a state senator to highlight her commitment.

“Education and training will be Molly’s top priority,” Moyer said. “She will work to expand opportunities not only for nurses but for all our young people who need education and training to get good jobs. Our businesses are counting on it.”

The requested funds are not a guarantee. If re-elected, Sununu will present a proposed budget to the Legislature in February, but the Legislature will carry out its own budget-writing process that may differ.

It is unclear what the state’s finances will look like when budget negotiations roll around next spring, but early indicators are rosy. So far this year, the state is running with a budget surplus of $44.9 million, largely driven by an increase in business tax revenue this year, according to a September snapshot from the Department of Administrative Services.

Sununu said his request would come from surplus funds and would be a key priority in the budget process.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at, at (603) 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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