LYNDONVILLE — A new grant aims to expand nursing education in the Northeast Kingdom.

On Wednesday, representatives from Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College were joined by the state’s congressional delegation to announce a $241,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration to expand VTC’s in-person clinical nursing program on NVU’s Lyndon campus.

“Our nursing program is essential to Vermont and to addressing the health care workforce shortage,” said Sophie Zdatny, chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges System.

According to Zdatny, more than 650 students are currently enrolled in nursing programs between VTC and Castleton University. An additional 279 students are enrolled in the Community College of Vermont’s allied health preparation certificate program, a pathway to VTC’s nursing program.

“We're pleased today to announce the upcoming expansion of this program — an expansion that furthers the partnerships between our campuses as we move to becoming Vermont State University in 2023,” she said.

VTC currently offers a one-year practical nursing certificate program and two-year associate degree in nursing program at NVU-Lyndon, as well as in Newport and at a dedicated clinical site in the Littleton, New Hampshire, area.

The grant will create a 1,500-square-foot clinical nursing education center on the NVU-Lyndon campus, complete with nursing instruction classrooms, a nursing-skills lab and a high-fidelity human-patient simulation lab.

A matching gift requirement to the grant was made by the Vermont Community Foundation and a private contribution from NVU-Lyndon alum Christian Mason.

John Mills, interim president at NVU, said the funding will allow VTC to increase the capacity of its existing program, “creating a direct pathway for students to complete their degree from start to finish in the NVU-Lyndon community.”

“This opens up increased access to nursing education here in the Northeast Kingdom and will meet some of the demand for nurses in our region for years to come,” he said. “This one project underscores how critically important NVU is to our rural communities.”

VTC President Patricia Moulton said the expansion will allow an additional 60 students to enroll in the program during the next three years.

“That means we can educate more people right here in the NEK for a lucrative career in nursing and health care,” she said.

The grant comes at a time when Vermont is facing a critical nursing workforce shortage.

According to the Vermont Board of Nursing, the number of new registered nurses licensed in the state declined by 69% from 2007 to 2014. In 2018, the Vermont Talent Pipeline projected a need for 900 skilled nurses annually in Vermont; in 2019, only 421 completed RN or licensed practical nurse (LPN) licensure programs.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., underscored the situation, stating, “We hear from hospitals and health care providers about the problems they have providing services because of the lack of nurses. And I hear from community leaders around the state; their priority is to increase nurses in the community to care for their children, elderly relatives and friends.”

Shawn Tester, CEO Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital, said when he first arrived at NVRH three years ago, 35% of its nurses were nearing retirement age.

He said pre-pandemic staffing challenges have only been exacerbated, noting that NVRH currently looking to fill 27 full-time nursing positions and about a dozen part-time and per-diem positions.

NVRH will contribute to the program’s skills and simulation lab spaces and serve as a regional resource.

Tester, who called nurses the “backbone of the entire health care system,” said a lack of staff impacts the hospital’s ability to deliver care and increases reliance on more expensive traveling nurses from outside the area, which is financially unsustainable.

(Tester is also a member of the VSCS board of trustees.)

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., also noted the financial burden created by relying on traveling nurses, stating that health care facilities in Vermont pay out $75 million annually to travelers.

“So our job and, I think, we are all united in this, is to create local nurses, to attract people into the profession and to make sure that they are paid a living wage,” he said.

Sanders added that the state will need to add around 9,000 nurses to the workforce during the next seven years, but with current nurses retiring at a faster than expected rate, Vermont nursing schools are struggling to close the gap.

In order to fix the problem, Sanders called for increasing salaries for nurse educators to make them more competitive with hospital jobs, as well as paying those responsible for developing nurse-training programs. Sanders said not compensating employees for that work disincentivizes training more nurses.

He noted that the federal government has tripled funding for the National Health Service Corps as part of the American Rescue Plan and has also increased funding to community health centers and the Graduate Medical Education Program.

“So the bottom line is, we have a crisis, but it is a crisis that, I think, can be solved,” he said.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., praised the expansion of the program for creating more opportunities to train nurses who will work and live in their local communities.

“The pandemic has highlighted the critical need to invest in the training pipeline to meet our state’s provider needs in the short and long-term,” he said in a written statement Wednesday afternoon. “This grant will make our health care system more resilient. And that's good for everyone, from Vermont's nursing students to the patients who rely on them.”

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