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December 26, 2018

New nursing program aims to help fill education, workforce gaps

Photo / Leslie Tyler, Central Maine Healthcare
Photo / Leslie Tyler, Central Maine Healthcare
The first class in the licensed professional nurse program at the Maine College of Health Professionals in Lewiston posed for a photo Friday at a welcoming ceremony. The program is intended to help fill a nursing shortage in the state, as well as provide direct-care workers a career path to registered nursing.

A move to fill the critical gap in both the state's nursing needs and its education opportunities begins in January, when a group of 12 men and women will be the first class of the Maine College of Health Professions licensed practical nursing program.

The program is the only LPN program in the state and has a certified nursing assistant to LPN track, aimed at giving women and men who work as certified nursing assistants a chance to move up the career ladder. The state board of nursing webpage cites no dedicated LPN programs in the state.

"I haven't seen a long-term care staffing shortage so severe in the nearly 20 years that I have been with Maine Health Care Association," said Richard A. Erb, the organization's president and CEO. "We envision this program as an opportunity for certified nursing assistants in long-term care to advance in the field of nursing. And, the ladder doesn't stop there; we anticipate some will go on to obtain RN degrees."

RNs — registered nurses — have at the minimum an associate degree, and most have bachelor's degrees, while LPNs complete a one-year certificate program. CNAs take a nine-week program before being certified.

The University of Maine System in September announced plans to increase options for nursing education, geared toward registered nursing degrees.

According to the Maine Board of Nursing, however, there are no other programs in the state geared toward LPN certification. Practicalnursing.org says that LPNs in Maine earn an average hourly rate of $20.39, or annual salary of $42,410.

In the new program, classes will be three days a week, allowing the students to still work while attending the one-year program. An opening ceremony welcoming the class was held Friday at the Lewiston college. Once the students complete the program next December, they will be eligible to take the qualifying exam that will allow them to work as LPNs in Maine.

The state's nursing shortage is felt keenly in long-term care centers, where registered nurses often fill gaps that could be filled by LPNs.

Expanded focus

The program originated earlier this year, when the Maine Health Care Association partnered with the Maine College of Health professions after determining long-term care centers would welcome LPNs to fill needed roles.

The initial focus has expanded since then — the two organizations believe that other health care providers will benefit from more LPNs in the workforce as well.

The program has been approved by the Maine Board of Nursing and accredited by the New England Council of Higher Education..

"The fact that the LPN program can serve as a bridge between the CNA and RN is very promising for our workforce," said Monika Bissell, president of the college. "Working with our team of educators and veteran long-term care nurses, we are pleased to offer this program and are confident it will address part of a persistent staffing shortage in health care."

As Maine's over-65 population continues to grow and more nurses reach retirement age, there are fewer professionals to provide direct care in all health care settings. Recent estimates are that Maine will be short 3,200 registered nurses by 2025. The issue is compounded by the fact that Maine nursing homes have one of the highest staffing standards in the country, the release said.

"This presents an immediate and pressing problem... many nursing homes report that their registered nurses are stretched thin, providing direct care as needed to fill in the staffing gaps created by turnover and vacancies, increasing their already full workload," the release said.

Because LPNs once played a larger role in long-term care employment, the health care association surveyed its nursing home membership to determine if hiring LPNs could ease the staffing shortage.

The response was "overwhelmingly positive," but the next step was creating an LPN program, and filling that education gap..

The program will feature small class size, with one instructor for every eight students in the clinical setting and one to 12 in the laboratory. Tuition and fees are about $16,000.

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