Congressman Tom Latham is pushing for a new federal program to help ease the nursing shortage. "As the Baby Boomers move into the health care system and need more attention, we’re going to need more and more nurses," Latham says. "And the shortage is critical today and it’s a crisis in the future."

Latham, a Republican from Ames who’s part of Baby Boom generation, has joined with a Democratic congresswoman from Wisconsin to introduce a bill that would give new federal student loan guarantees to those who agree to teach nursing. "Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin, is co-sponsoring this bill with me and I think that gives it a very good chance to have a bipartisan bill that will move through congress," Latham says. "And whether it stands alone or becomes part of a larger health care reform bill, that would be fine also, but we’ve got to make sure that we address this nursing shortage."

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, American hospitals and other health care facilities today have unfilled openings for about 200,000 nurses. "The shortage we have today for nurses — throughout Iowa, about 2000 short; in 10 years it’ll be about 10,000 short; nationwide about a million short of nurses. The problem is…the lack of faculty in the teaching schools," Latham says. "And so what this does is give the RN’s today a chance — a scholarship, in essence — so they can go on and further their education so they can go on and become faculty."

According to Latham, Registered Nurses currently have little incentive to become instructors because the average salary of a professor of nursing is 20 percent less than what an R.N. earns by providing direct care to patients. Latham contends the loan repayment plan proposed in the bill would help "offset that gap" and prompt more nurses to choose to teach others who want to enter the profession.

Under Latham’s bill, Registered Nurses could get a federal loan repayment of up to $40,000 to earn a master’s degree or up to double that much to get a doctorate in nursing.

Latham and Congresswoman Baldwin have talked with officials in the Obama Administration about the proposal. The bill already has the backing of the Service Employees International Union. About 80,000 nurses are members of that union.