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One of the most urgent crises today in American healthcare is the shortage of nurses. Nurses are almost always the first and most frequent line of contact patients have within the U.S. healthcare system, and there just aren’t enough of them.
The American Hospital Association (AHA) reports that about 100,000 nurses have left the profession since 2021 due to stress, burnout and retirements, and that another 610,000 plan to leave by 2027. The outflow is exacerbating a shortage that predates the COVID-19 pandemic. The AHA estimates that 1.1 million nursing positions currently remain unfilled across the United States.
On Tuesday, Benefis Health System, the Mark and Robyn Jones College of Nursing, and Montana State University celebrated a potential solution to this problem – the future construction of five new nurse teaching facilities at campuses in Great Falls, Billings, Kalispell, Bozeman and Missoula. Once completed, the five new buildings are projected to double MSU’s capacity to graduate nurses and nurse practitioners within Montana.
“Today marks a new era for our university – and I believe strongly – for healthcare in this community and in our beloved state,” said MSU President Waded Cruzado during Tuesday’s ceremony held in the Benefis Town Square at The Grandview assisted living facility in Great Falls. “The Bobcat nurses who will emerge from this building will care for your neighbors, your loved ones and you. Since 1937 MSU Bobcat nurses have improved healthcare in our community and state. This building will catalyze even more benefits for all Montanans. These healers will touch countless lives in deeply meaningful ways with their education, compassion, and expertise.”
The road to this expansion of nursing education in Montana was paved two years ago with a $101 million donation from philanthropists Mark and Robyn Jones. In September 2021, Montana State University announced that Mark and Robyn Jones, founders of Texas-based Goosehead Insurance, which has more than 1,800 offices nationwide, had committed to making the donation to help address access to healthcare in Montana, particularly for residents of rural and frontier communities.
The Joneses’ gift is the largest ever given to a college of nursing in the United States, as well as the largest private donation to MSU in the university’s 161-year history. In addition to providing funding for five new university-owned facilities at each of MSU’s five College of Nursing’s campuses in Bozeman, Billings, Great Falls, Kalispell and Missoula, the donation will create five endowed professorships, a scholarship fund, and a new nurse practitioner midwifery program.
Access to healthcare has been a critical issue across the state for decades. Fifty-two of Montana’s 56 counties are classified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as medically underserved and as health professional shortage areas. Many counties in Montana lack even one primary care, mental health, or maternal care provider. Montana ranks sixth in the nation for pregnancy-related deaths and is the highest in the western states, according to a report from the University of Montana.
“Right now, the biggest need in healthcare nationally and in the state of Montana is for more nurses,” said John Goodnow, CEO of Benefis Health System. “A lot of people headed toward retirement just said, I can’t do it anymore. There was already a shortage and then the aftereffects of the pandemic added to it.”
“The other thing that happened was that during the pandemic a lot of people put off health care because they were afraid,” he added. “So now they’re catching up, and the demand for healthcare is higher with a fewer number of nurses.
“Every hospital is critically dependent on nurses, more so than any other type of personnel. The ability to produce more nurses is critical for healthcare success and healthcare outcomes across the United States. Having these new schools in Montana will go a long way towards helping meet that shortage.”
Cruzado said that from the beginning the Mark and Robyn Jones College of Nursing has been dedicated to a “distributed campus model” of nursing education across the state.
“We could have built a $101 million building in Bozeman, but that would not have cut it,” Cruzado said. “The most important thing about this project is that we decided together to make an investment in the state, here in Great Falls, Kalispell, Bozeman, Billings and yes, even in Missoula.”
The reference to the Bobcat v. Grizzley rivalry brought an instant laugh.
“The partnership between our nursing college and Benefis Health System will also help shape our curriculum, provide hands-on training, and ensure that our graduates are ready to meet the evolving demands of healthcare,” Cruzado added. “Together we’re strengthening the future of nursing.”
Great Falls was selected as the site for the groundbreaking ceremony because it was the first location to graduate MSU nurses in the State of Montana.
“It is fitting that we are breaking ground here in Great Falls first because this is where it all started,” said Sarah Shannon, Dean of the Mark and Robyn Jones College of Nursing. “After completing two years of prerequisite courses in Bozeman, Montana State University’s very first nursing students back in 1937 completed their last two years of what was called “upper division” nursing course work here in Great Falls to become Bobcat nurses.”
Those early courses took place at the original Columbus Hospital on the north side of Great Falls – a facility that has since been torn down, but still retains a legacy that was eventually transformed into Benefis Health System.
Shannon went on to note that MSU is now the largest producer of registered nurses in Montana and is the sole provider of doctoral nurse practitioner education across the entire state. Their program currently graduates close to 300 nurses annually, and over 80% of these stay in Montana for their first job. That number is expected to double as the Mark and Robyn Jones donation comes into effect.
“I think healthcare is the crisis of our time,” Cruzado told the Tribune. “And as a land-grant university we are called to address and find the solution for that. We wanted to make sure that we provided the students and the nurses of the future with the best quality of education so they can go out in those communities and become not only great nurses, but nursing leaders.”
“You and I and many of us will be taken care of by nurses more than physicians sometimes,” Cruzado added. “Nurses are absolutely indispensable, and they will continue to play an ever more important role in partnering with physicians to provide the best quality of healthcare in Montana.”
In February 2022 Benefis Health System donated two acres of land south of its main campus near the intersection of 29th Street South and 18th Avenue South for construction of the new nursing school facility. This followed a similar donation for the construction of Touro University, Montana's first state based medical school.
“We are here today for the groundbreaking of five future buildings because John Goodnow, Benefis hospital and Great Falls were literally the first ones to raise their hand and donate the land on which this building will stand,” said Cruzado.
“You can’t ever get rid of the nursing shortage unless we train more people to be nurses,” Goodnow observed. “I want to express how much Benefis appreciates MSU, whether its’s the Bozeman campus or the College of Great Falls/MSU. We have a great working relationship with MSU, we always have. We are super supportive of MSU and they are of us. It’s just a great collaboration that we really appreciate.”
This article originally appeared on Great Falls Tribune: $101 million donation paves way for adding new Montana nurses