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Dean: Need for Nebraska nurses expected to grow

Grant Schulte, Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- Nebraska already faces a shortage of nurses and primary care doctors, but a top dean at the University of Nebraska Medical Center said Thursday that the need will grow even more under the federal health care law.

Juliann Sebastian, dean of the university's College of Nursing, said the increase in insured Nebraskans as a result of the law will prompt more to visit doctors' offices for preventative care.

That care is often administered by nurses, nurse practitioners and primary care physicians.

The law is intended to lower health care costs by insuring more people and encouraging them to seek early care to avoid major health problems. Sebastian said the health care law makes some federal money available for community health centers and school-health clinics, but the need for nurses will persist.

"Once more people are insured, we expect that they will be getting more care earlier in the process through primary care clinics, physician offices, all at the primary care level, to help them stay healthy longer," Sebastian said.

Now that President Barack Obama has won re-election, Nebraska hospitals are preparing for an increase in insured patients and also keeping watch on whether the state opts to expand Medicaid coverage. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government cannot penalize states that choose not to extend Medicaid coverage to more residents, and Gov. Dave Heineman opposes any expansion.

Nebraska lawmakers are expected to introduce a series of bills next year to prepare the state for the law, one of the crowning achievements of Obama's first term.

Nebraska has dealt with a shortage of primary health physicians and registered nurses for years. A 2009 study by the university's Center for Rural Health Research predicted that aging doctors, people living longer with chronic health conditions and more demand for health care will compound a shortage in Nebraska that is most severe in rural areas. It also found that nearly half of the doctors in Nebraska were expected to reach retirement age within the next decade.

Nebraska has about 65 active primary care physicians for every 100,000 residents, according to a study by Jim Stimpson, an associate professor in the university's College of Public Health. The report shows that the number has held fairly steady since 2007.

The University of Nebraska has embarked on a series of building projects to train more medical workers, including nurses. Nebraska is expected to have a shortage of 3,800 registered nurses by 2020, with rural areas hit the hardest, according to university estimates.

Among the projects is a $15 million building addition at the University of Nebraska at Kearney for nursing, and a proposed $17 million education and research facility in Lincoln. University administrators asked lawmakers for state aid in February, but the Lincoln nursing facility was not included in the final package approved.