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ID:	5826There has been an avalanche of deserved attention recently regarding overcrowded emergency rooms in the Las Vegas Valley, a situation that has reached crisis proportions. This is an issue that the region's hospitals and government officials must address, but there is another matter that deserves just as much attention, if not more so: the lack of nurses.

Nevada ranks last in the nation in its nurse-to-population ratio, according to a report released last week by the Health Resources and Services Administration. The paucity, including here in Las Vegas, has long been a problem. But the shortage also is starting to be felt throughout the country, as the Boston Globe reported recently in a comprehensive look at the situation. The newspaper noted that health care professionals are worried that the shortage could result in poor medical care because nurses are involved in every aspect of medicine.

A long-term measure to help boost the number of men and women entering the nursing profession has been offered by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who plans on introducing legislation that would establish a Nursing Service Corps. This program would provide new funding for scholarships for those students who pledge to work as nurses for several years. Kerry's proposal would be a promising first step, but there also needs to be a sea change in how the health care industry views and treats nurses.

Hospitals, HMOs and other health care providers actually need to start setting aside a larger portion of their budgets to pay these nurses a salary that is more in line with their difficult, and all-important, jobs. Some of the work they perform borders on miracles, whether it's providing top-notch care to patients as they recover from an illness or offering moral support and encouragement that a patient needs to get better. This is more than about pay, however. Many nurses are stretched to the breaking point because they are understaffed, which has been attributed in part to cost-cutting by HMOs and hospitals. Word-of-mouth about these dismal working conditions also has resulted in nurses leaving their profession, which has contributed to the shortage.

In light of all that nurses do, it's not hard to understand why they are thought of so highly by the public -- now it's time for the health care industry to start treating them like the professionals that they are.