Rising to the Call: HRSA’s Veterans’ Workforce Initiative Delivers
By Melinda Mitchell Jones, MSN, JD, RN
Associate Dean for Non-Traditional Undergraduate Studies
Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Nursing
In 2013 the US Department of Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) released a request for proposal (RFP) to schools of nursing around the country seeking applications for a unique workforce grant focused on veterans. The grant was to facilitate and support the transition of veterans into programs offering a Bachelor of Science Degree in nursing specifically targeting those veterans who acquired knowledge, training, and experience to serve as medics and corpsmen while in the military and create educational pathways for them to leverage their military backgrounds into viable careers as registered nurses. The first RFP in 2013 awarded 9 initial projects that began in September of that year. A second RFP in 2014 selected 11 additional veterans’ projects to start in July.
There were 11 other projects in 2014 deemed worthy of funding but these schools were required to wait for the grant award until the following July 2015 when additional funds became available for the approved, but unfunded projects. To date this HRSA initiative has awarded $37,682,970 over 5 years in programmatic support to 31 nursing schools across the USA.
The primary impetuous for driving the Congressional funding of this grant was a recognition by the Department of Labor that a growing number of veterans would be separating from active duty and in need of jobs as the Pentagon was looking to drawdown military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Congressional authorization for funding of the VBSN project arose from a collaborative interagency effort including HRSA, the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs. According to the online service Federal Grants Wire the grant objectives included: 1) providing veterans with a path to receive academic credit for prior military medical training and experience, 2) providing veterans with the education and support needed to progress through innovative BSN career ladder programs, and 3) preparing veterans to take the National Council Licensing Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). Schools of nursing which were awarded the grants had to demonstrate a solid track record of on-time graduations, an infrastructure to support academic success, the ability to provide personal and career counseling and advising, and the success of graduates in earning RN licensure.
There were also sub-goals identified for the grant, recognizing a growing concern nation-wide about a future shortage of nurses, and a desire to increase faculty knowledge of military culture and student veterans’ needs. The American Nurses Association projects that by 2022 there will be a need for 3.4 million nurses nation-wide and of that 1.1 million will be new nursing positions. Much of this shortage is attributed to the increased percentage of the aging Baby Boomers and the associate healthcare need related to aging according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Also, as with the general population, there is a large percentage of the nursing workforce nearing retirement. A 2013 survey conducted by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing revealing that 55% of the RN workforce across the country is age 50 or older.
Given the growing demand for registered nurses holding bachelor degrees this grant initiative could not have had better timing according to Marian Smithey, MSHP, RN, who is the HRSA Project Officer in the Bureau of Health Workforce. She understands the value of federal educational funding to veterans in supporting a successful transition into civilian life because her father used the GI Bill after World War II to earn his degree in medicine. Ms. Smithey advocates for veterans in her role at HRSA by helping the awarded schools manage their grants, and by sharing the accomplishments of the schools and their veteran students with HRSA leadership.
She shares, “The VBSN program has been one of HRSA’s most important workforce investments that support veterans’ graduation, employment, and quality of life for veterans on individual, university, local, and national levels.” Smithey continues saying, “As a professional nurse the VBSN program has given me the opportunity to lead an excellent group of dedicated professionals and learn extensively about veteran student challenges, strengths, and strategies to help veterans succeed in civilian settings.”
The VBSN grant initiative is wrapping up its final year this June 2018. With 31 programs located in 16 states around the country plus Washington, DC which received grant funding, a variety of program models, promising best practices, and strategies for veteran success have been refined and widely disseminated. Francis Marion University in South Carolina reported that HRSA’s VBSN grant helped them to decreased academic barriers into nursing school. Pat Voelpel, EdD, RN, ANP, CCRN, a clinical professor at Stony Brook University in New York, echoes a similar observation. Dr. Voelpel reports that the funding has served to create mentoring, tutoring, academic and employment advisement which addresses the needs of veteran students including a unique equine therapy program to help those veterans suffering from PTSD.
The HRSA funding has enabled most universities to design features for standard educational tracks which allow veterans to capitalize on their healthcare training and experience giving them a fast track into nursing. Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi and several with other schools, have adopted competency based education (CBE) models which allow students to earn prior learning credit through written and/or clinical competency testing. These CBE pathways allow veterans to gain upper division college credit in nursing courses. The value of this method of competency assessment is beneficial as it recognizes the knowledge veterans bring into school and facilitates the transition to graduation which is great for veteran morale. Susan Letvak at University of North Carolina at Greensboro shared the story of a former combat medic who was able to shorten her progression through nursing school from 5 to 6 semesters to just 3 semesters. Letvak, principal manager of the grant at the university shared, “This graduate, who was previously told she was not college material, is now a highly appreciated nurse practicing in critical care.”
HRSA’s VBSN grant had an added benefit for faculty and staff of funded schools through the development of internal orientation programs on military culture and veterans resources which helped those charged with delivering and supporting the education of the veteran student to understand perspectives of students who have transitioned out of military service, identify potential mental health issues, and direct students to local services when needs are identified. Excelsior College used grant dollars to develop a self-paced, online course for internal stakeholders which developed “insight into the lives of servicemen and women who regularly juggle deployment, relocation, and the lingering effects of traumatic experiences arising from combat,” according to Pat Cannistraci. DNS, RN, CNE. A survey conducted of Excelsior faculty and staff after completing the course showed gains in their understanding of veterans needs and how to more effectively support student success.
Veteran to BSN graduates are positioned to advance their careers in healthcare moving into roles of leadership, education, and research. By building on knowledge and experience gained from military service by seeking additional education graduates can continue to contribute meaningfully to the health of the communities in which they live.