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Pa. nurses are waiting months for their licenses⁠—here’s what needs to happen to fix the problem

Numerous IT issues and low staffing levels are contributing to delays at the State Board of Nursing, according to a new report.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — New nurses in Pennsylvania are waiting months to get their licenses from the State Board of Nursing

The long delays come amid an ongoing nationwide shortage of healthcare workers.

FOX43 Reveals the cause of delays at the State Board of Nursing and what needs to happen to fix the problem.

Obtaining a Registered Nurse (RN) license by examination for Pennsylvania graduates means that the applicant completed a Board approved RN nursing program, passed the NCLEX-RN, and meets the additional requirements for licensure. What should be a 12-to-15-week process is taking four to six months.

Deb Cardenas, President of the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association, said long waits for licenses have been frustrating for nurses looking for work after graduation.

“It’s caused nurses to not be able to work at all because they don’t have their license,” said Cardenas. “It’s caused hardship for their families.”

Current registered nurses in Pennsylvania are also facing longer than usual wait times to renew their licenses and many nurses have complained that the Board of Nursing has not been transparent with expected timelines.

On the Department of State’s website, the Board states that it will take, on average, three calendar days to renew a license. Instead, Cardenas said it has been taking three months.

Hospitals cannot replace staff fast enough. FOX43 Reveals that turnover rates for nurses have spiked since 2019. Hospital leaders say around 36% of their nurse jobs are unfilled.

“If it’s a cumbersome process and there’s a long delay in waiting for the license, nurses may not continue to practice in Pennsylvania,” said Cardenas. “They may choose to go to neighboring states to practice.”

FOX43 Reveals that a new report from the Joint State Government Commission found would-be nurses in Pennsylvania face some of the longest wait times in the country for licensing.

During a months-long investigation, the Commission found the Board of Nursing is understaffed, communicates poorly with applicants, and is using problematic software that has resulted in numerous IT issues. 

Issues with the Pennsylvania Licensing System (PALS) has persisted since the state launched the $10 million centralized electronic system for licensing boards in 2016.

Yet nurses are experiencing long delays before they even have a chance to apply for their licenses. State Representative Dawn Keefer said her office has fielded hundreds of complaints from nursing school graduates who are waiting weeks for Board of Nursing approval to take the state exam, or NCLEX-RN.

“A lot of these students are being recruited while they’re still in school so they have job offers waiting and they can’t get them,” said State Rep. Keefer, who represents parts of York and Cumberland counties. “Last year, I had a student who said ‘I’m leaving. I went to South Carolina. Got it done in three weeks.’ Three weeks! So what are we doing wrong in Pennsylvania?”

Representative Keefer plans to introduce a bill that would remove the test-application vetting process from the state board. She said it is an unnecessary step that is only adding to the backlog since educational institutions already send transcripts of program completion to the Board of Nursing.

“You have a state certified nursing program. You have that nursing program electronically sending over your transcripts saying that you have completed this and then it’s taking the state weeks to review that just to give you a time to sit for your boards,” added Rep. Keefer.

FOX43 Reveals that the Joint State Government Commission is recommending seven changes to the Board of Nursing, including increase staffing levels—especially at peak times—by adding at least 11 more employees, create a State Board of Nursing Task Force to review issues and examine pending updates published in the New Essentials document from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, and improve the current licensing system (PALS).

During its investigation, the Commission identified numerous technical difficulties with PALS that impacted the Board’s ability to process license applications. Oftentimes, Board personnel would not know about an error until an applicant notified them and applicants could not go back and change their application once it was submitted.

The State Board of Nursing said it already plans on taking steps to replace its current licensing system, but adds that it will take time to implement.

The Commission also recommends reexamining the composition of the Board of Nursing. According to the report, board seats should be filled by nurses and voted in by nurses, instead of appointed by the governor.

Another recommendation from the report encourages the Board of Nursing to publish data it collects on the Commonwealth’s nursing workforce. The Board obtains information on education, demographics and employment. No other entity in Pennsylvania can collect that kind of data.

FOX43 Reveals issues that affect you and your family to keep you informed. If you have a topic you want us to investigate, send us an email at FOX43reveals@FOX43.com.

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