By Laura L. Acosta
UTEP News Service
The top nurse in the United States talked about the importance of affordable medical care for underserved populations and the expanding role of nurses in health care during her recent visit to The University of Texas at El Paso’s School of Nursing.
Nearly 150 undergraduate and graduate nursing students, faculty and staff listened attentively as Mary Wakefield, Ph.D., administrator of the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), congratulated students on their career choice and described the employment opportunities available to them after they graduate, thanks to the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
“You don’t have to get beyond one nursing course to know the importance of keeping people healthy and not waiting to care for them after they get to an emergency room,” Wakefield said during her remarks in the Health Sciences and Nursing Building on March 20. “You know the importance of keeping people healthy (through) illness prevention and health promotion, and that’s exactly what the Affordable Care Act is designed to do.”
In 2009, President Barack Obama selected Wakefield to head the HRSA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that is the primary federal agency for improving access to health care services for people who are uninsured, isolated or medically vulnerable.
Wakefield is the first nurse in the history of the HRSA to oversee the $8 billion agency, which provides tens of millions of Americans with affordable health care and other help through HRSA’s 100-plus programs and more than 3,000 grantees.
“It’s encouraging for us to hear from the top nurse in the country,” said Gabriela Marquez, a sixth semester nursing student. “(She) gave us that motivation that we need as brand new nurses to know that the sky is the limit.”
More than $10 million in HRSA funding for the School of Nursing over the past 10 years has had a major impact on educating the next generation of nurses and improving the quality of life in the Paso del Norte region, said School of Nursing Dean Elias Provencio-Vasquez, Ph.D..
“(This administration) values the knowledge and skills that you’ll have when you graduate from these (nursing) programs,” Wakefield told students.
Wakefield was in El Paso for the ribbon-cutting of a new health care center in the central part of the city. She was joined by U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who invited her to meet with students and faculty at UTEP’s School of Nursing and to tour the University’s Center for Simulation.
While the topics she discussed were serious, Wakefield often punctuated her speech with humor.
“I spent the last 15 minutes looking at this facility (simulation lab) and learning what you’re learning as most of you who are students in this room, and I’m thinking, ‘Where would I be today if I had come out of this program?’” joked Wakefield, who received her master’s and doctoral degrees in nursing from The University of Texas at Austin. “I might have actually been able to make something of myself. It’s a pretty impressive operation (the simulation lab), that’s for sure.”
According to O’Rourke, 180,000 El Pasoans are without health insurance. The city also has the longest wait times to see a doctor or a nurse. In addition, nearly 80,000 military veterans live in El Paso and require medical services for health issues including post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
O’Rourke said students coming out of the nursing programs at UTEP can help fill the significant gap in health care services in El Paso.
“You can practice what you learned anywhere,” O’Rourke said to students. “It could be Austin; it could be Chicago; it could be Mexico City. I want you to know that El Paso needs you. Not only can you do the most good here, not only is there the greatest need here, I also think that there’s the greatest opportunity to be able to take care of people in a really unique, dynamic, binational community unlike anything else in the world.”
Wakefield echoed O’Rourke’s sentiments. She also encouraged students to educate their friends and family about the ACA, which has also created new job opportunities for clinicians.
Since the ACA was enacted, Wakefield said 4 million more patients are accessing care in community health centers, which has resulted in 4,500 additional nursing positions since 2009. Currently there are 18,000 nurses working in community health centers across the United States. The ACA also has made it possible to hire 5,000 nurse practitioners in community health centers.
“When people are thinking where they want to work, (a community health center) is a place where people might want to work in terms of opportunities when they graduate,” Wakefield said.
Wakefield also shared information about the HRSA’s National Health Service Corps’ loan repayment assistance program for qualified health care providers, which received an additional $1.5 billion through the ACA to put graduates to work as quickly as possible in urban, underserved areas and rural frontier communities.
The program is open to nurse practitioners and other licensed primary care medical, dental, and mental and behavioral health providers. They will receive up to $50,000 in exchange for two years of service if they practice in a health professional shortage area. The corps is a valuable option, especially for disadvantaged students or minorities who may have challenges in paying their student loans, Wakefield said.
Nursing undergraduate student Jose Hernandez didn’t want to miss the opportunity to hear from the country’s top nurse about how the ACA was going to affect his career and the care he provides his patients.
“It’s about preventive medicine and not ending up in the emergency room for uncontrolled hypertension,” said Hernandez, who is doing his clinical rotation at a local hospital. “You see it at its worst when you’re in the hospital. If you could prevent it from them getting there, that’s the care that you want give.”