EDITORIAL: Why won’t legislators act on a tool to ease Alaska’s nurse shortage?

It’s no secret that Alaska is short of qualified, certified, and registered nurses. It’s a problem that has existed since before the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the situation nationwide and was the cause for the substantial growth of the University of Alaska Anchorage nursing program. In 2022, the vacancy rate for nursing positions in Alaska was a staggering 24%. As a stopgap measure that has become common practice, Alaska health care facilities have had to pay massive sums to augment their nursing workforce with temporary travel nurses, and the increased cost to hospitals is ultimately passed on to Alaskans in the form of more expensive charges for procedures, inpatient stays and increased health insurance premiums. Given that our state’s health care is already the most expensive in the nation for personal health care spending, one would think legislators would be acting swiftly to address the problem in every way that made sense. Unfortunately, one would be wrong about that.

For years, the Legislature has failed to act on bills that would bring Alaska into the interstate Nurse Licensure Compact, a system that makes nursing licenses more uniform and portable between participating states. Nearly 40 U.S. states participate in the compact — but Alaska, inexplicably, is one of the holdouts. Today, if a nurse moves to Alaska, their license from another state is not recognized. They have to re-apply for an Alaska nurse’s license — a process that can take several months. In the meantime, empty nursing positions go unfilled.

If you’re wondering who would oppose participation in a system to make it easier to recruit and hire nurses to address Alaska’s shortfall, the answer is nurses’ unions. In arguing against joining the compact, AFL-CIO leaders have said it won’t help because the nurse shortage is a nationwide problem. While that’s true, it’s also true that removing any obstacle between Alaska and a smoother path for nurses to move here and work is worth pursuing — there’s no sense in deferring action on a helpful step just because it’s not a perfect solution by itself. To use a line more commonly applied to energy production, we should pursue an “all of the above” solution to ease the nursing shortage, from joining the compact to expanding nursing program offerings at UAA. The unions standing in the way of one part of that solution — and the legislators that support their efforts in Juneau — show that they value the leverage they get from the licensing roadblocks that delay or deny nurses from coming here and filling empty positions.

Alaska’s nurses themselves overwhelmingly favor joining the compact. A 2023 survey of more than 4,500 Alaska-licensed nurses found that nearly 90% of Alaska resident nurses supported joining the compact, and almost as many union nurses — 85% — felt the same way.

So what’s the holdup? That’s a great question to ask your legislators. As it stands, there are bills in both the House and Senate that, if passed, would have Alaska join the compact — and both are suffering the same fate, languishing in committee. Both are in their bodies’ respective Labor and Commerce committees, and if those committee chairs (Rep. Jesse Sumner and Sen. Jesse Bjorkman) get on the stick and move them along, the next step would be the Finance Committee and ultimately a floor vote. Joining a nurse compact is not just a small step in helping solve Alaska’s nursing shortage, it’s a big one that we should take immediately. Health care costs are already too high in this state; we shouldn’t let legislators influenced by the nurses’ union drive them higher. Contact your representatives in the Legislature and let them know how you feel.

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the editorial board, which welcomes responses from readers. Board members are ADN President Ryan Binkley, Publisher Andy Pennington and Opinion Editor Tom Hewitt. The board operates independently from the ADN newsroom. To submit feedback, a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.