“The same day my paperwork was submitted, I was emailed with the approval of a 6-month license.”

Brittany Dickman traded her ordinary work in a regional New Mexico hospital to be on the frontlines of the COVID-19 health crisis in New Jersey. 

This intensive care unit (ICU) nurse of 2.5 years joined nursing colleagues Cara Alsafi and Jesse Gomez from Lovelace Regional Hospital in Rosewell for two weeks in the hard-hit region after the call went out across the country for nurses to help.

In an interview prior to her trip, she explained, “I’m not totally sure why. Just wanting to help out really.”

When we spoke with Dickman after she returned, she said she wasn’t prepared for the scale of sick patients or the hardship the situation imposed on their families. Due to severe restrictions on visitors to hospitals, few family members could visit their loved ones. Eventually, visitors were entirely prohibited. “They can’t make decisions for their loved one, can’t be there, can’t hold their hands.”

Nurses also filled that role for dying patients. Dickman was relieved that she could ease some of the stress on the hospital’s nursing staff by taking cases off their hands.

New Jersey brought in nurses from across the country and even doctors from around the world because of the overwhelming situation. The state and others like New York, hard-hit by COVID-19 cases, needed to expand the number of medical staff that could serve patients in their hospitals.

New Jersey relaxed occupational licensing regulations and quickly processed temporary licenses for nurses and other medical professionals. This regulatory reform allowed Dickman, who holds a master’s degree in public health and an associate’s degree in nursing, and scores of other professionals, to volunteer their skills and experience in this time of need.

Dickman was surprised at how quickly the process went, noting it was the easy part of her experience. “The same day my paperwork was submitted, I was emailed with the approval of a 6-month license.”

Nurses have national standards that they have to meet to demonstrate they can competently care for patients. States, however, grant occupational licenses or permissions for workers to practice as nurses in their jurisdictions. Each state has its own regulations of education, training, testing, and fees needed to work. 

Unfortunately, some licensing requirements are onerous or unnecessary and serve as obstacles for people to work rather than a health or safety precaution. Some states also make it difficult for licensed workers from other states to operate there.

Dickman explained that her state of New Mexico is the opposite. Because it belongs to a national compact or collection of states that have agreed to recognize licenses from each other, it’s easier for nurses to travel to other states and practice.

New Jersey isn’t in that compact, which means that in normal times a nurse from New Mexico wouldn’t be able to use her skills in New Jersey. But hopefully, that will change. Whether New Jersey chooses to join a compact or extends the current licensing reforms beyond the COVID-19 crisis, we hope that policymakers make permanent reforms to clear the way for individuals to work. This is good for their state and for the citizens that depend on a functional healthcare system.

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