A new law opens nursing licensing to military personnel. Will it bring in new workers?

  • Kathy Yurek, 53, of Cornish, N.H., extends her arm to receive the COVID-19 vaccine by Matt Prugger, a medic in the New Hampshire National Guard at the Heater Road armory on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, in Lebanon, N.H. Jennifer Hauck

Monitor staff
Published: 7/8/2021 4:06:12 PM

Thanks to a newly signed bill, military personnel can apply for a nursing assistant license as part of a new effort to fill empty shifts in hospitals and nursing homes across the state.

The law, signed by Gov. Chris Sununu last week, allows EMTs, paramedics, and those with experience in the Army or Air Force to forgo the training course typically expected of nursing assistants and apply directly for a license.

Rep. Steve Pearson, a Derry Republican who sponsored the bill, said he hopes by removing all licensing barriers, an off-duty EMT might work a couple of shifts in a local nursing home to make some extra income or someone with military training might spare a couple of hours to help out at a hospital.

 Pearson said it is not intended to convince anyone to switch careers — there is little incentive for them to do so permanently, as nursing assistant positions are notoriously low-paying.

The median salary for EMTs and paramedics last year was about $17.50 an hour, according to data from the Bureau of Labor. Licensed nursing assistants typically make $15 an hour, a salary sometimes lower than that of Target and McDonald’s entry-level employees. 

The law unlocks a whole industry of trained health professionals who have standardized medical training. How many people will take advantage of these newly relaxed restrictions is another question.

The law is based on an emergency order that Sununu instated to help staff nursing homes and hospitals during the height of the pandemic. During the duration of this emergency order, however, only 35 EMT or military members applied for a license, according to data from the Office of Professional Licensure and Certification.

Joseph Shoemaker, the director of Licensing and Board Administration, said he checked the number twice to make sure it was really that low. 

Brendan Williams, the president of N.H. Health Care Association, said he had not heard of any of the nursing homes having an employee registered through the emergency order.

"You'd be taking a pay cut," he said. "I mean, yeah you could work as a nursing assistant, but would you really want to if you were an EMT or a paramedic?"

Nick Xenos, a former paramedic for Dover Fire Department, worked part-time in Wentworth-Douglass Hospital’s emergency room for about 14 years. He joined back in 2001, without a nursing license, during another critical shortage of nurses to supplement his income.

The position, which he called “recession-proof employment,” allowed him to essentially operate as a nurse — save for a couple of responsibilities like injecting insulin — with his paramedic’s license. Officially, he was referred to as a paramedic, not a nursing assistant.

He said he would recommend the job to other paramedics, especially if they can find a position in an emergency department that matches their EMT salary, as his did. 

“You can make more money without breaking your back helping people up and downstairs,”  he said. 

Ultimately, he left the hospital for the same reason many nurses leave their positions: burnout. 

Pearson said the nursing shortage has become so severe, any law that offers any possibility of bringing new workers into the industry is worth looking at.

"There wasn't a busload of people knocking on the State House door demanding this," he said. "We were trying to figure out a way to meet this need and this seemed like a very practical way to immediately address it."

He has seen the workforce shortage firsthand at Rockingham County Nursing Home, where he serves as a member of the board. Nearly half of the facility's positions are vacant, he said. Even with expensive nurses from temp agencies, the home isn't able to fill beds to capacity.

This is now typical of New Hampshire long-term care facilities. The aging workforce shrunk further after several LNAs left in 2020 to avoid contracting COVID-19. 

Paramedics and military personnel are more than qualified to help fill in these gaps, Pearson said. 

“Rather than making somebody go through a ridiculous hoop, we provided a pathway for those folks,” he said. 

Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

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