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B.C. announces incentives to get more nurses working

Coverage of application and assessment fees for internationally trained nurses, bursaries for those who return to practice, and faster processing are all part of a package unveiled Monday to address the nursing shortage.

After earning a nursing degree in Finland, where she worked as a registered nurse, Gabriela Kosonen began the process of applying to work as a nurse in B.C. in November 2020.

Today, Kosonen, who now lives in the Comox Valley, is still working at a Mount Washington coffee shop, one of her three jobs in the Comox Valley.

While she has benefited from improvements to the system since April, the experience has been so frustrating, she has contemplated giving up at times. She completed some assessments in July and then had to wait until Christmas for information on how to proceed on required courses to be eligible to write the national registration exam for registered nurses.

“These courses will take me at least half a year to complete, because of university-specific start dates and availability of hospital placements for a clinical practicum,” said Kosonen, who added she could not have continued if not for her savings, her Canadian citizenship and initial accommodation with her grandparents.

The provincial assessments stage that precedes the national nursing assessment is expensive, she said, though she has been approved for a partial reimbursement.

Reached at the coffee shop on Monday, Kosonen, who also works in a non-clinical job in a hospital, applauded the province’s announcement that it was speeding up accreditation for internationally trained nurses so they can work in B.C.

Streamlined accreditation is part of an incentive package announced Monday to get more nurses working in B.C. to alleviate severe staff shortages. Other incentives include coverage of hefty application and assessment fees for internationally trained nurses, thousands of dollars in support and bursaries for those who return to practice, and faster processing.

Premier David Eby, who introduced the incentives at Langara College in Vancouver, said the province will cover upfront application and assessment fees of about $3,700 that have deterred some internationally educated nurses from putting their names forward.

The province is also providing more than $4,000 in new financial support to nurses who return to practice after “a period of absence” to cover application, assessment and certain travel costs. Nurses returning to practice and internationally trained nurses will both also now be eligible for up to $10,000 in bursaries for any additional education required.

Eby noted since April, 5,500 nurses have indicated they want to work in B.C., with 2,000 in the registration and assessment process.

Talented and skilled nurses with the right experience have been kept on the sidelines by an expensive and complicated registration process, and “we need to fix that,” said Eby, who expects the registration process will be reduced to four to nine months from three years in the streamlined assessment pathway, which is expected to launch at the end of this month.

“[There are] 2,000 nurses right now that are in this approval pipeline that could be on the floor in hospitals within 90 days,” said Eby in a media availability after the announcement. “It is a remarkable shift.”

Kosonen said the length of time the process takes has been a bigger obstacle than even the fees. “That’s the biggest issue they should be working on, speeding it up — not rushing through it and potentially getting unqualified people, but making sure that the qualified applicants don’t have to wait for months on end or years on end to get to work in Canada.”

Aman Grewal, president of the B.C. Nurses’ Union and a nurse for 36 years, said the changes offer hope for a strained and understaffed health-care system.

As of the spring 2022, there were 5,200 vacancies for nurses in B.C., with 26,000 new nurses expected to be needed by 2031. “It’s going to be exciting for us to be able to get more nurses to support the nurses that are already on the front lines,” Grewal said.

In November, nurses protested outside Nanaimo Regional General Hospital, saying they were burned-out and overwhelmed and the hospital was over-capacity. Port Hardy Hospital’s emergency department, which has seen regular overnight and weekend closures due to nursing and doctor shortages, is closed overnight 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. until Jan. 23 due to “limited staff availability.”

Grewal, who was at the announcement in Vancouver, said the Nurses’ Union has advocated for years for streamlining the application process for internationally educated nurses.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix, who last year outlined 70 actions to build B.C.’s healthcare workforce, said the latest initiative is another step in that plan. Since April, when an initial plan for bursaries, reimbursement of application fees and fast-tracking of assessments was announced, there’s been a “significant increase” in both interest and applications to practice in B.C., said Dix.

“What’s changed today, in addition, is that a significant number of those costs will be paid up-front by, essentially, the Ministry of Health directly to the college and not have people have to put the money up front and then apply afterwards — something that is very challenging for people.

In 2017, B.C. was the last of 10 provinces in registered nurses per capita, but it has led in Canada since then. Between 2015 and 2020, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, B.C. ranked first in growth of registered nurses — a 9 per cent increase compared to 4 per cent and 2 per cent in Alberta and Ontario respectively.

B.C. employed 62,501 registered nurses, registered psychiatric nurses and licensed practical nurses in 2021, up from 57,191 in 2017, a nine per cent increase.

Nurse practitioners working in B.C. have more than doubled over the last five years, said Dix.

Dix said the province will regularly report out on the impact of the measures to increase the number of nurses in the province.

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