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Oregon Legislature passes bill aimed at expanding nurse education to rural communities

Flags on the Senate floor at the Oregon State Capitol, May 18, 2021 in Salem, Ore. Voters could be looking at one or several ballot measures next year to rein in campaign finance contributions in Oregon.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Flags on the Senate floor at the Oregon State Capitol, May 18, 2021 in Salem, Ore. Voters could be looking at one or several ballot measures next year to rein in campaign finance contributions in Oregon.

SB 523 allows community colleges to offer nursing bachelor’s degrees, in hopes of improving education pathways, especially in rural Oregon.

With a nurses’ strike over wages and working conditions complicating care at one of Oregon’s largest health systems — including at a rural hospital on the coast — lawmakers have made progress on a bill aimed at expanding the training pipeline for future nurses, particularly for communities outside of the state’s urban areas.

Thanks to a move from the Oregon Legislature, higher education advocates say people in rural parts of the state will now have wider access to quality nursing education — and in time, potentially more nurses, as a result.

Senate Bill 523 is part of a flurry of bills to take significant steps toward becoming law, following the six-week walkout from Senate Republicans. It repassed the Senate last week, after passing the Oregon House late last month.

The bill will allow Oregon’s 17 community colleges to offer a Bachelor of Science in Nursing or BSN. The new community college degree promises a chance for students to continue on from shorter nursing degrees that many of the colleges already offer.

According to the Oregon Community College Association, increasing access to BSN degrees at community colleges could help give rural students options they can afford.

“By enabling community colleges to offer the BSN degree, we are ensuring that our students have access to affordable and accessible educational opportunities,” John Wykoff, OCCA’s deputy director said in a statement. “This legislation opens doors for students in rural areas and provides a vital local option for RN [registered nursing] graduates to advance their careers.”

According to the community college association, a BSN degree has advantages like “expanded opportunities for promotion and higher pay.” But, many Oregon community college students don’t continue on to get the degree.

OCCA said in a statement that in the last five years, 100 out of 175 nursing graduates at Chemeketa Community College did not pursue a BSN. Association officials suspect part of the reason is a lack of low-cost options nearby.

The association said that many community college students who graduate from shorter nursing programs are forced to continue their education and get a BSN through “costlier out-of-state or online providers.”

There are institutions in Oregon that currently offer BSNs, including Oregon Health and Science University, University of Portland, Linfield University, George Fox University and Warner Pacific University. All of those institutions submitted testimony in the legislature opposing the bill.

When asked about the bill when it was first being discussed in the legislature, OHSU told OPB that the university’s five nursing school campuses already work with community colleges through the Oregon Consortium of Nursing Education.

Through that consortium, students complete the first part of their nursing curriculum at a community college and then continue through one of OHSU’s campuses in Ashland, Klamath Falls, La Grande, Monmouth and Portland.

Both OHSU and the Oregon Alliance of Independent Colleges and Universities said they did not have confidence the passage of SB 523 would help address Oregon’s continuing nursing shortage, much of which is related to a shortage of nurse educators and clinical placements as well as pay gaps.

Still, OCCA thinks the bill’s passage will make a difference.

“In rural areas, where healthcare deserts are a pressing concern, having a local and affordable option for nursing education is crucial,” Wykoff said. “This legislation will not only help meet the healthcare needs of these communities but also improve the overall health outcomes of the population.”

OCCA said a registered nurse to BSN program also does not require any additional clinical training beyond what’s already provided in the RN degree, another big concern from critics.

“All nursing programs leading to RN licensure already require master’s prepared nurse educators,” Wykoff said. “Community college nursing faculty possess the necessary credentials to teach the BSN curriculum effectively, making them well-equipped to provide high-quality education at this level.”

The bill’s passage won’t immediately impact the nearly 2,000 nurses with Providence Health System who have gone on strike in Portland and on the Oregon Coast. One of the demands of the Oregon Nurses Association, the union representing the striking nurses, is double pay for nurses who pick up shifts to help with short staffing. Supporters say SB 523 is designed to help expand the nursing pipeline, so over time it could relieve pressure on nurses to pick up extra shifts to fill staffing gaps.

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Meerah Powell is a general assignment and breaking news reporter for OPB. She previously worked as a news reporter and podcast producer for Eugene Weekly in her hometown of Eugene, Oregon. Along with writing and audio work, Meerah also has experience with photography and videography. She graduated from the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication.