On Special Assignment: Montana's nursing shortage

Tim McGonigal


HELENA – According to the Montana Nurses Association, there are more than 20,000 nurses in Montana. That may sound like a lot, but the state — and the nation — faces a nursing shortage.

“Maybe in our larger facilities like the bigger hospitals there’s not as much of a shortage,” said Vicky Byrd, executive director of the Montana Nurses Association. “But if you go into our critical access hospitals or school nursing, absolutely there’s a shortage.”

Recently, U.S. Senator Jon Tester accompanied new VA Secretary Bob McDonald on a tour of VA Montana.

During that visit, Tester got the idea to push for more federal funding to help the nursing shortage. He sent a letter to leaders on the Senate Health & Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, seeking more money for Nursing Workforce Development Programs.

Also known as Title VIII funding, the program provides grants and scholarships to nursing students.

“If we’re going to have a healthcare system in rural America that works for people that live here we’ve got to have healthcare professionals in that systems whether its docs or whether its nurses, there’s a shortage of both in Montana,” said Tester. “So we need to do what we can do to train them and attract them so they’ll stay here.”

Experts in the field agree. Byrd has been a registered nurse for 26 years and says the key to getting more good nurses starts with attracting more top teachers.

“We need more qualified and well paid faculty to then teach those nurses and to get them through school,” said Byrd. “When many nurses are turned away because there’s not a slot in he program, they may correlate that with maybe there’s not enough nursing jobs out there.”

With more nurses retiring, an aging population, and increased coverage through the Affordable care Act, the American Nurses Association says the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates during the next two decades there will be a demand for more than a million nurses.

Norlynn Nelson is Associate Director of Patient Care Services at VA Montana.

She says there are great opportunities for nurses taking care of our veterans through a national nurse education initiative.

“Nurses who are associate degrees can get their bachelor’s degree,” said Nelson. “Most recently one of the things we added is making it possible for some of our registered nurses who want to become nurse practitioners, we’ll help them pay for that.”

Nelson says nursing has changed over the years, and while it takes dedication to make it in the profession, one of the nice things about it is the diversity it offers.

“It might not be directly caring for people, it might be doing insurance , clinical evaluation of insurance claims, that type of thing,” said Nelson. “So there’s all sorts of ways to use that degree.”