Nursing shortage hits crisis levels, and immigrant nurses may provide relief—if they could just obtain visas

A shortage of experienced nurses has hit the United States, particularly in rural communities, forcing many hospitals in the Midwest to recruit nurses from one another.

One way hospitals have tried to alleviate the crisis is by using foreign nurses to fill the gap. But it can take years for nurses to obtain a visa to work in the United States, and the current political climate over immigrants has also delayed the process for bringing international nurses into the country. Proposed legislation aims to change that and open the door for 8,000 international nurses to get the necessary visas to help alleviate the nursing shortage.

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Shari Dingle Costantini

And one of the bill’s greatest advocates is Shari Dingle Costantini, R.N., founder and CEO of Avant Healthcare Professionals, a staffing agency, and chair of regulatory affairs for the American Association of International Healthcare Recruitment. She has spent recent months meeting with members of the House and Senate to bring awareness about the critical healthcare shortage, and the need for a consistent immigration vehicle for internationally educated nurses.

“We are seeing delays that are greater than we’ve ever seen before,” she says, noting that federal immigration officers delay petitions for visas by sending more and more requests for information.

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There is a seven-year visa backlog for internationally educated nurses despite the growing demand, Costantini says. The bill, H.R. 3351 Emergency Nursing Supply Relief Act of 2017, was introduced by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., in July and has been referred to the subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security.

And though she admits it may be a challenge to get the bill passed in both the House and Senate given the current political climate, she is hoping that lawmakers understand that healthcare is part of immigration bills moving forward, especially as the industry faces a shortage of professionals, including RNs and physical therapists. The bill would also require that the education of the immigrant nurse is deemed equal to an education in the United States, they must pass an English proficiency exam, have certification in worker healthcare safety, and have the appropriate foreign-issued nursing license.

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The process is cumbersome. Costantini said it can take 18-22 months to get a nurse through the necessary credentialing, testing and immigration process. But foreign nurses aren’t discouraged by the process or the negative immigration rhetoric in U.S.. She says she receives more than 1,000 inquiries per month from nurses abroad. Her staffing agency takes approximately 10% of those that initially apply. Last year, she said, her company placed about 350 internationally educated nurses.

She urges healthcare CEOs to call their state representatives to advocate for passage of the bill to alleviate the healthcare shortages. The nursing shortage, she said, is typically at the top of the list of CEO worries so if passed, the legislation may offer some relief because it will allow foreign nurses to provide nursing care at the bedside.