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Illinois should join multistate Nurse Licensure Compact

Bipartisan legislation would add Illinois to the compact, allowing qualified registered nurses and licensed practical nurses to practice in Illinois and any state that is part of the compact without having to pay for and obtain additional licenses.

Nurse Jessica Bell administers sedative medication for a man with COVID-19 and on a ventilator in the Intensive Care Unit at Roseland Community Hospital on the Far South Side on Dec. 8.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The advent of COVID-19 vaccines has sparked optimism across the country, but long shifts, physical and emotional fatigue, and burnout continue to take a toll on health care workers.

Illinois was already facing a nurse shortage before last March, with over half of current registered nurses and 45% of licensed practical nurses nearing retirement age. Then the stress of COVID-19 pushed many health care workers out of the profession, leaving those who remain in desperate need of support.

Federal data showed roughly one in five Illinois hospitals reported a “critical” staff shortage as of December. In hospitals across the state, nurses have seen shifts increase in time and job duties, with little time off or ability to recover from the traumatic experiences of the past year.

What’s more, Illinois nurses face an added source of burnout, as they work in one of the few states in the country that requires a state-specific nursing license, requiring transfers from other states to go through costly and time-intensive processes to get registered. Each Illinois nursing license costs at least $50 — more — when factoring in fees for fingerprinting and background checks.

Madalyn Mauro, a labor and delivery nurse at Northwest Community Healthcare, watched former classmates get licensed in other states shortly after graduation from the University of Iowa. Her Illinois licensure process, however, took several months, and included lost paperwork, trouble getting a live person on the phone, and a five-hour drive from Des Moines to Chicago to get fingerprinted because the state wouldn’t accept prints processed in Iowa.

Thirty-four other states around the country are members of a multistate Nurse Licensure Compact, allowing them to have one license with the ability to practice in any state that is part of the agreement. The model of mutual recognition was developed and implemented by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, and is similar to the driver’s license compact Illinois has been part of for many years. Neighboring states Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Missouri are members of the Nurse Licensure Compact.

State Rep. Michael Zalewski, a Riverside Democrat, is sponsoring bipartisan legislation this spring that would add Illinois to the compact, allowing qualified registered nurses and licensed practical nurses to practice in Illinois and any state that is part of the compact without having to pay for and obtain additional licenses. Democratic Sen. Sara Feigenholtz of Chicago is also carrying the measure.

Under the legislation, Illinois would still maintain its own nursing licenses and recognize existing licenses, but would add multistate licenses to the roster of those it accepts. The legislation won’t affect Illinois’ authority to set standards for its own Illinois-specific licenses or to regulate the practice of nursing within the state.

At a time when more and more health care is being provided across state lines, it simply helps qualified professionals practice in areas that need them most, easing recruiting burdens and helping to maintain appropriate staffing levels in hospitals and long-term care facilities. What’s more, it also increases career options for Illinois nurses, who may feel pulled to take their skills and help in other areas of the country.

It’s time for Illinois to join the compact.

Amy Korte is vice president of policy at the Illinois Policy Institute.