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EDITORIAL: Meeting future demand for health care workers

Updated June 20, 2019 - 8:53 am

Rep. Steven Horsford, a Democrat serving Nevada’s 4th Congressional District, has introduced the Health Providers Training Act 0f 2019. The measure is intended to address a national “shortage” of health care workers.

“Our country faces a growing aging population,” a press release notes, “a rise in chronic diseases and increased behavioral health conditions — all of which contribute to a substantial need for a dynamic health care workforce that can meet the demands of today and tomorrow.”

The congressman has a valid point. Baby boomers are fast approaching or in the midst of their retirement years. The market for in-home medical services is projected to grow from $108 billion in 2018 to $173 billion by 2026, according to Business Insider, outpacing every other medical sector.

Where there’s money to be made, the market inevitably responds. But Rep. Horsford’s prescription involves the American taxpayer. His proposal would make hospitals eligible to receive federal grants to train low-income individuals to become health care workers in fields “expected to be in high demand or experience a labor shortage.”

To the extent Health Profession Opportunity Grants move people off public assistance toward steady employment and self-sufficiency, Rep. Horsford’s proposal is a defensible use of taxpayer resources. But his legislation would be stronger if it also confronted the licensing barriers that stand in the way of non-physician health care workers.

About 25 percent of all licensed workers in the country toil in the health care field. In a 2018 commentary for Real Clear Markets, analyst Ryan Nunn concluded that “we could benefit from reforming licensing rules in the health care sector” and loosening regulations that prevent people such as nurse practitioners or physician assistants from using the “full extent of their training and experience.”

This can be done without compromising care. “Research finds that the quality of health care services has not suffered when ‘scope of practice’ restrictions on health professionals have been relaxed,” Mr. Nunn wrote, along with Kathleen Adams and Sara Markowitz of the Brookings Institute, in a later paper.

These licensing regimes vary across the country, leaving a hodge-podge of different rules in 50 states. Often, these restrictions make it more difficult for workers to relocate, exacerbating regional shortages. Arizona recently became the first state to recognize credentials earned by workers in other states. Nevada should do the same.

Rep. Horsford’s proposal to provide incentives to hospitals to train low-income Americans for careers in health care may be one piece of the equation when it comes to meeting future demand. But removing the licensing hurdles that limit employment opportunities in health care promises to be a more far-reaching solution.

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