HHS secretary Sebelius addresses nurse practioners in Las Vegas

Federal lawmakers may have enacted health care reform, but nurse practitioners are the ones on the front lines. They must fight the status quo and put it to work, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said.

"Health care reform has opened the door, but we need you to show patients the way through," Sebelius told 5,600 nurse practitioners from around the country who convened in The Venetian ballroom Wednesday.

America's medical system needs a fundamental shift: being proactive instead of reactive, asserted Sebelius.

The United States has the most advanced medical technology and best education for providers in the world, she said.

"But Americans live sicker and die sooner," she said.

That's because of lifestyle.

"There's no one I'd like to talk to more than you," Sebelius said to the nurse practitioners, who focus on health education and disease prevention in addition to clinical care. "It won't be easy, but you didn't listen when critics said you couldn't run your own clinics."

Nurse practitioners are licensed in­dependent practitioners who offer many services normally attributed to physicians, such as diagnosing and treating health problems.

Perseverance will be needed to make the enacted health care reform relevant, Sebelius said, reading a quote from the renowned nurse Clara Barton, who formed the American Red Cross.

"I have an almost complete disregard of precedent, and a faith in the possibility of something better. It irritates me to be told how things have always been done," Barton said.

Nurse practitioners are often responsible for making patients aware of programs offered under health care reform, she said. That's because nurse practitioners stand on the front lines with patients in their role as nurses, and are the "heart and soul" of medicine. But they are still able to retain an overall view of the battlefield by filling the same role as physicians.

And nurse practitioners are the fastest growing type of primary care provider , Sebelius said at the annual conference of American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. Conference attendance supported her remark. About 30 percent more nurse practitioners attended than ever before for the four-day conference.

And 140,000 nurse practitioners are working in the United States, with their numbers growing by 9,000 each year.

The academy's goal now is to win over the states one by one, enabling nurse practitioners to have authority to in­dependently practice medicine, according to academy CEO Tim Knettler. That's already the case in 16 states but not Nevada, where they have to be supervised by a physician. The academy is lobbying to allow this in 45 states by 2020, Knettler said.

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.