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Durbin and health care leaders unveil plan to bolster rural workforce

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) reads a section of the Constitution to reporters on Monday, May 22, 2023.
Lyndsay Jones
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin D-Ill., reads a section of the Constitution to reporters on Monday, May 22, 2023. Durbin and Illinois health care leaders held a news conference at Lincoln Memorial Hospital on Monday to announce a rural health care workforce-boosting plan.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin joined leaders from various advocacy groups Monday to unveil a multifaceted plan aimed at increasing the number of health care workers in rural Illinois.

Called "Roadmap to Grow Illinois' Rural Health Workforce," the plan has been in the works for more than a year, Durbin said, and prioritizes recruitment and incentives for working in rural areas, and expanding educational programming at colleges and universities.

"This is a beginning today," Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, said Monday in Lincoln. "I want this to be practical. I want it to be realistic and I want it to be bipartisan from start-to-finish. I think that's the only way you can expect to have any success."

The plan was endorsed by just shy of a dozen state health care organizations, including the Illinois Health & Hospital Association, Illinois Critical Access Hospital Association and the Illinois Community College Trustees Association, among others.

Plan action items include exploring new partnerships between community colleges and medical facilities for training, as well as the promotion of dual-credit options for high school students to "being workforce training while in high school."

The plan also includes an emphasis on increasing the number of nurse faculty at higher education institutions across the state — $2 million in federal funding has been allocated to Illinois State University's Mennonite College of Nursing for expansion efforts and $1 million to Southern Illinois University's College of Medicine in Carbondale to create a Rural Health Institute.

Durbin also said he would use his position to "convene regular meetings with hospitals, health centers, medical schools, nursing schools ... and other rural health partners" to make them aware of funding opportunities through the federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) that already funds various initiatives.

Durbin said the plan "prioritize(s) the expansion" of HRSA's preexisting Rural Training Track pathway sites to include additional locations.

Durbin said there are not yet metrics to track the plan's success, saying "I just want Illinois to get it organized, first."

Data from just before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 indicated Illinois would have 15,000 fewer registered nurses than needed throughout the state. And while urban areas have 90 doctors per 100,000 residents, urban areas have just 45.

Durbin also acknowledged a continued shutdown of obstetrics units at rural hospitals across the state, saying "birth outcomes are worsening" in those areas.

Debt ceiling talks

Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Democratic President Joe Biden were set to meet late Monday to further discuss options regarding the U.S. debt ceiling. Durbin told reporters he had "gone back and forth in terms of optimism and pessimism."

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the U.S. could default on its debt by June 1 if legislators do not reach an agreement on raising the debt ceiling. Durbin said if the U.S. were to default, "families and businesses across the board" would feel "disastrous" effects.

"Businesses will lay off workers. If we default on our debt, people will find interest rates going up," he said. "It's going to mean fewer homes will be built, fewer cars will be sold. It really creates a restriction on the economy expanding."

Lawmakers in D.C. have less than two weeks to come to agreement on a spending plan and have it signed by the president.

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.