On the heels of a new appointment as executive director of the Mississippi Nurses Association and the wrap-up of the annual association convention that reported a record number of student nurse attendees, Ricki Garrett is gearing up for the 2005 legislative session.
“Somebody told me the other day that going from the College Board to the Mississippi Nurses Association is like going from the frying pan into the fire,” said Garrett, a former College Board member, with a laugh.
Garrett, a former schoolteacher and former president of the Mississippi University for Women Alumnae Association who served on the higher education panel from 1992 to 2004, is up to the task. At the forefront of her legislative agenda is lobbying for much-needed higher salaries for nursing faculty at state colleges and universities.
“We’re very concerned that we’re losing so many nursing faculty, which of course causes us to take fewer students into the nursing programs, programs that already have lengthy waiting lists of qualified students,” said Garrett. “We’re supporting the state Institutions of Higher Learning’s budget request of a 15% across the board faculty pay raise over the next three years. I don’t know how realistic that is, but we’re in a dire shortage of nursing faculty in the state, which reflects the national trend.”
Mississippi colleges and universities are having an extremely difficult time hiring nursing faculty with doctoral degrees, said Garrett.
“Many teachers we’re hiring come from a clinical rather than an academic background, and we’re having to find innovative ways to prepare them to go into the classroom,” she said. “We’re trying to encourage those with bachelor’s degrees in nursing to pursue advanced degrees. Nursing faculty with clinical backgrounds often practice nursing part-time so they can make extra money to supplement their salaries. We’re lucky to have them because we’re not really able to compete with wages they can make in a clinical setting.”
The association is also lobbying to raise the cap on the number of school nurses who may qualify for a salary incentive program. Last year, executive director Betty Dickson, who will remain a part-time lobbyist for Mississippi nurses, was able to help get a bill passed that allowed school nurses to earn higher salaries if they completed an enhancement program.
“That number was capped at 20, and we’ve already gone above that,” said Garrett. “The feedback from legislators on that program, and increasing salary opportunities for Mississippi nurses in general, has been positive. We’ve been in a tight budget situation for several years now, and lawmakers seem genuinely interested in finding the needed funding for our nursing program.”
The influx of foreign nurses has helped fill the 9.2% vacancy rate for registered nurses in Mississippi, but at least two nurses from the Philippines have failed accreditation tests on their first attempts and are taking remediation courses in Statesboro, Ga., that are being taught by Filipino nurses.
“They do have to meet strict criteria to practice nursing here,” said Garrett. “Certainly, we’d prefer to have positions filled by nurses educated here, but because there is a shortage, we understand why the hospitals go outside the country to hire them. That’s one reason why we believe this nursing faculty shortage needs to be addressed.”
The Mississippi Nurses Association recently joined Communities for a Clean Bill of Health to support a 50¢ per pack cigarette tax, if the tax money goes into a healthcare fund. The association also supports protecting the state’s Tobacco Trust Fund.
“We’re also supporting legislation that promotes better working conditions for nurses,” said Garrett. “Nurses are having to work longer hours and are under more stressful conditions that result in chronic injuries, such as those that occur with heavy lifting. I’ve been pleased to see there seems to be a high level of cooperation between the healthcare-related associations and hospitals. Some hospitals are purchasing lifting equipment, for example, and taking other steps to improve working conditions for the nursing staff.”
Garrett also has another task: to raise the number of members (registered nurses) in the Mississippi Nursing Association from 1,700 to 5,000. There are about 32,000 registered nurses in Mississippi.
“We not only advocate legislative issues affecting the nursing profession, but also the public in general,” said Garrett. “We offer continuing education for members at a reduced rate and many other benefits.”
The Mississippi Nurses Association recently wrapped its annual convention, where a record number of 900 student nurses and several hundred registered nurses attended, much to the delight of the nearly 100 exhibitors, said Garrett.
“It was my first convention, and I was very pleased, especially with the student involvement,” she said. “Once students get involved with a professional organization, they’re more likely to join. Their involvement is vital in developing leadership skills.”
The Mississippi Nurses Association and the Office of Nurse Executives held a joint pre-convention workshop on patient safety issues led by American Organization of Nurse Executives CEO Pam Thompson.
“We came out with three primary objectives: to hold a multi-disciplinary healthcare summit on patient safety to establish some goals for Mississippi, to establish a Mississippi Patient Safety Consortium to coordinate and disseminate information on patient safety issues impacting clinical practice and education and to develop some methods to collaborate among various healthcare agencies and as part of that, include patient safety in the nursing school curriculum,” said Garrett. “It was a very important session.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.