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SPRINGFIELD - Gov. Rod Blagojevich announced Tuesday new steps to deal with Illinois' nursing shortage even as a set of laws passed last year still have not been implemented

Blagojevich wants to spend an estimated $50 million over the next 14 years to combat a shortage that could balloon to 21,000 fewer Illinois nurses by 2020 according to the federal government.

"As the baby boomers grow older, Illinois faces the challenge of providing for their growing demands on the health-care system while also making up for the retirement of a generation of nurses," Blagojevich said in a prepared statement.

Currently, there are 152,557 registered nurses in Illinois. The governor's plan, which will be part of his Feb. 15 budget speech, will focus on increasing the number of nursing teachers.

The governor wants to spend $1.3 million of this year's budget for a nursing education scholarship fund. The proposal also would provide a $1.5 million grant to nursing schools to increase the number of graduating nurses and $150,000 for 15 nurse educator fellowships that would supplement faculty salaries.

The proposal also would forgive student loan debt for people who choose to become nurse educators.

The Illinois Nursing Association backs the proposal.

"It's a good thing to do," said Tom Renkes, executive director of the Illinois Nurses Association. "We need faculty with a well-rounded background. The governor's plan is far reaching and makes a lot of common sense."

While the association agreed with the governor's new initiative, Renkes said more must be done to improve working conditions, such as eliminating mandatory overtime for nurses.

Blagojevich announced plans to fend off the nursing shortage almost a year ago. In July, six new laws took effect to deal with the problem, but their implementation is still largely a work in progress.

Those laws focused mostly on attracting foreign nurses to Illinois. To do that, the state eliminated a requirement for foreign nurses to take a pre-test before taking the state licensing exam.

Susan Hofer, spokeswoman for the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, said it is too soon for hard data on the impact of the change.

The state also still is hunting for a hospital to host an internship program that would allow out-of-state nurses or those from U.S. territories to work alongside registered nurses as they prepare for the licensing exam.

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