Romney: We Must Address the Widespread Nursing Shortage in This Country

Highlights Utah’s Western Governors University which graduates more nurses than any other institution in the U.S.

WASHINGTON—Today, at a Health Committee hearing, U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) discussed the widespread shortage of health care workers in the United States, which has been exacerbated by an overwhelming backlog of immigration interviews for nurses and doctors overseas—primarily from the Philippines. He urged the State Department to resume its pre-COVID operations to allow more internationally trained health professionals to immigrate to the U.S. for work to help address widespread nursing shortages. Romney also highlighted Utah’s Western Governor’s University—which graduates more nurses than any other institution in the country—as an example of what other schools can be doing to train more nurses, for a reasonable cost.

A transcript of Romney’s exchange with the witness can be found below, and video can be found here.

Senator Romney: I was struck by the Chairman’s opening comments that we spend so much per person in this country. Health results are not that much different. We spend almost double as much as the people in the average developed nation in health care. Sometimes we in Washington think, well, the answer is to spend more. But I would suggest that there must be a different approach.

If we’re already spending almost twice as much as everybody else, then there’s got to be some other reason that we’re not able to provide the quality at a reasonable cost that we’d like to do. I’d note that my prior experience in the private sector showed that almost everything that we buy gets better and better—better quality and lower cost—in real terms over time, and that productivity increases over time.

And the exception to that are really three major areas: health care, education, and the military. Those happen to be three areas that are dominated by government! So I think I have an idea as to where the problem lies and would suggest the right answer is not more government. In this case, I think we can look at health care and say, what’s the old Pogo cartoon? “I’ve met the enemy and the enemy is us.” And one aspect of that enemy relates to immigration.

My understanding is that typically almost 20% of the nurses and medical professionals in this country come from foreign countries. But the backlog of medical professionals that want to come into this country has become enormous. We require them to be interviewed and given our security needs, it’s appropriate that they be interviewed by the State Department. But apparently, the State Department is still so concerned about COVID that they’re not interviewing these people. And so places like the Philippines, where there are some 30,000 people who want to come here and serve as nurses, we can’t get those nurses in.

Are you aware of this feature given [that you’re] the President of the University of New England? Are you aware that the fact that our government is just not doing the interviews necessary to bring people in that would help dramatically reduce our nursing shortage?

Dr. James Herbert: So, sir, I’ll ,be honest with you, I’m not aware of that. I’m not up on that particular issue with the interviews. But I’m happy to speak to because I agree with you about the importance of immigrants in our health care workforce. So more broadly, if I can just very quickly say one of the things we need is programs like we’re doing at UNE—in our pharmacy school, in our dental school—which are programs that are accelerated, programs that take foreign trained dentists or pharmacists or doctors for that matter, and then help them become eligible for American licensure to meet the requirements so they can sit for their exams and become eligible. So these accelerated programs are very valuable. And because we have professionals who are legal, they have green cards, they’re in some cases citizens, who could work but can’t work in their field that they were trained. They may have been a surgeon for 20 years in a foreign country, but and these are often people of color from the developing world.

So we’ve developed programs in that regard. But then you also have, and just in the case of Maine, to give you an example, we have a lot of asylum seekers from Africa and they are sitting in hotel rooms and can’t work and they want to work.

Romney: Yeah, let’s interview these people. Let’s stop allowing our government workers to work from home saying because of COVID, we can’t allow you to come back to the workplace. You can’t do the interviews of these people who want to come to our country and fill the desperate needs we have in health care. If we have a nursing shortage and a doctor shortage, let’s let those who are in line that are qualified come here and I agree with you with regards to the education programs.

I note with regards to educating our own citizens here, the work that you’re doing in your respective institutions is critical. There’s one in the western part of our country called Western Governors University. You’re probably familiar with it. It graduates more nurses than any other institution of higher learning in the country. It’s tuition, Mr. Chairman, is $6,700 every six months. Very reasonable tuition compared to the cost in most places.

126,000 students at Western Governors University—it’s a non-profit. It was established by former Governor Mike Leavitt and the governors of five other Western states. We have a capacity to educate. They can take on more students at reasonable cost. So the approach is that we can learn from one another and expand the best practices that we’re seeing in some places.

But legal immigrants, following the legal process, where the State Department does the job they need to do and doesn’t stay home because of COVID will allow us to dramatically reduce the shortage that we’re seeing in this country. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.