News Story

License Restrictions Block Getting More Nurses Where Needed

States could help patients by honoring each others’ medical licenses

There has been 32,000 Michigan residents who have been diagnosed with the COVID-19 coronavirus as of April 20, according to the state of Michigan. And 2,468 people have died as of April 20. Medical facilities on the front lines of the pandemic are struggling to overcome many challenges, not least of them staffing.

Doctors and health care workers in hard-hit areas have been begging for assistance as they struggle to treat gravely ill patients.

The situation grew so dire at Detroit’s Sinai-Grace Hospital on April 5 that night-shift nurses in the emergency room refused to work unless more nurses were brought in, according to WJBK. Stressed hospital administrators told the nurses to either work or go home. To fill the gaps, some remaining emergency room personnel found themselves working 24-hour shifts.

To lend a hand, many older doctors and nurses have come out of retirement, but licensing restrictions are an obstacle to them crossing state lines and going where the needs are greatest.

One scholar has a suggestion for reducing the burden this is placing on the medical profession.

Stephen Slivinski, senior research fellow at the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty at Arizona State University, says states should revise their professional licensing rules to allow a concept known as universal license recognition. If Michigan did this, licensed medical professionals from other states could come here and go right to work.

“States are looking for ways to get more medical professionals to the front lines of the fight against the spread of the virus,” read a recent press release from Arizona State University.

“It’s the equivalent of how states treat driver’s licenses from other states, except in this case for occupational license,” Slivinski said.

State Rep. Mary Whiteford, R-Casco Township, is the sponsor of a bill to enroll Michigan in a multistate nursing licensure compact that currently has 34 members. The bill passed the House with all Democrats and two Republicans voting against it.

"I couldn't get a single Democrat to support it,” she said.

Whiteford is a nurse herself. As she put it, “You cannot call someone in another state as a professional and do follow-up on a surgery unless you are licensed in that state."

She also compared the concept to a driver’s license.

“The best way to do it is to put it into statute,” Whiteford said. “Then there is full-license protection. Any nurse would want that.”

Beyond nursing, more than a dozen states have implemented some form of temporary license recognition for out-of-state medical personnel since early March, according to Slivinski.

Legislatures would have to amend state laws for the reform to become permanent – a move that Pennsylvania and Arizona have already adopted.

Slivinski said that universal license recognition could also be applied to other types of licensed workers.

“Universal recognition of licenses isn’t just an important response to a radically increased demand for medical professionals in a pandemic. It will also be important to many other types of workers once the pandemic passes,” he said.

Among other benefits, this reform might provide opportunities to out-of-work Michiganders who are subject to occupational license mandates, letting them take temporary jobs in other states that may also adopt universal license recognition.

“When the freedom of movement has been restored and things begin to get back to normal, discouraging people from moving to where the best economic opportunities for them are will hinder both their economic well-being and that of states as a whole,” Slivinski said.

“Keeping occupational licensing barriers in place would be like instituting a different form of ‘shelter in place,’” he said. “This time, it would be one of an economic sort by restricting their job opportunities and their economic mobility.”

On March 17 Whiteford's House-passed licensure compact bill was discharged from a Senate committee and sent to the full body for further consideration. The legislature has only met twice since then with many members absent and no roll call votes taken.