Tim Watts

Registered nurse Tim Watts, 57, of Manheim Township, worked for Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health for about 15 years before being terminated at the end of 2019 because he had not gotten a bachelor's degree in nursing.

Because he doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree in nursing, Dec. 31 was Tim Watts’ last day in the operating room at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Hospital.

There’s an industry-wide push to have more nurses earn bachelor’s degrees, and hospitals now commonly require newly hired registered nurses to earn the degree within a set time.

But in March 2016 LGH announced a new policy that required existing registered nurses to get the degree by the end of 2019 if they wanted to keep their jobs in the hospital.

As LNP reported previously, the change drew protest from some longtime nurses. But over time, most nurses got the degree, switched to jobs that didn’t require it or left the hospital.

LGH didn’t directly answer a question about how many nurses were affected by the change. But in an email, system chief nursing officer Larry Strassner said that “Hundreds of nurses returned to school to improve their nursing skills and the safety and outcomes of our patients.”

After three years, career counseling and the offer of free tuition and alternate nursing roles, he wrote, “less than five nurses were removed from their positions.”

‘Beyond reimbursement’

Watts, 57, lives in Manheim Township and had worked at LG Health since 2004. He was one of the registered nurses terminated.

He said he had looked into getting his degree and judged the required courses filler — “nothing that was going to make me any better clinically.”

“The thing that they could never reimburse me or anyone else for is the time,” he said, noting that he loved his job and — until the termination — felt treated as a valued member of the team.

The other positions offered were downgrades that didn’t draw on his specialized experience, he said.

And he thinks it unfair that nurses just slightly older than him — those who had turned 55 by the beginning of 2016 — were exempted from the requirement and allowed to keep their jobs.

The only difference between him and those nurses was age, he said, and he’s talking to the state Human Relations Commission and pursuing LG Health’s internal grievance process in hopes of getting his job back.

In the meantime, Watts said, he’s looking at options in travel nursing or surgery centers, as he doesn’t expect to get an equivalent full-time job at another hospital without the bachelor’s degree.

Gerri Harris, a 53-year-old registered nurse who lives in Denver, left LGH in 2016 after 27 years, because of the policy, and now works at a surgery center.

“You put all that time in with the company, you think they would recognize your experience,” she said. “To have such blatant disregard because of a bachelor’s degree was disheartening, to say the least.”

Improved outcomes

Strassner said that multiple studies have demonstrated that hospitals with higher percentages of clinical nurses who have earned bachelor’s degrees in nursing have better patient outcomes. Those outcomes include reductions in hospital deaths, lower rates of post-operative complications and shorter lengths of stay.

He also said the policy was part of preparations to maintain the hospital’s Magnet designation, which is awarded to facilities that meet a set of criteria designed to measure the strength and quality of their nursing.

The hospital also requires that new registered nurses agree to return to school and complete their bachelor’s in nursing within three years, he said, noting that the system pays tuition at the PA College of Health Sciences.

Requirements at other area hospitals vary.

— Kelly McCall, spokeswoman for UPMC Pinnacle, said in an email that inpatient RNs are required to earn the degree within four years of hire. Some who had 20 or more years of experience were not required to get the degree, she wrote, but moving into a leadership role requires the degree. She also noted that some of the system's hospitals are Magnet designated and others are pursuing a Pathways to Excellence designation that is also focused on nursing.

— Tina Citro, vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer at WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital, said it strongly encourages all registered nurses to pursue bachelor’s degrees and provides “generous educational assistance benefits to support that goal.”

— Judy Himes, chief nursing officer at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, said it started requiring new hires to obtain a bachelor’s degree within six years in 2011, then in 2015 changed the time to within four years. It has exceeded the goal of 80% of nurses having at least a bachelor's degree since 2018, she said. 

Kristine Reynolds, a registered nurse and Magnet program director at Hershey, said nurses hired before 2011 do not have to get degrees to keep their jobs, but do if they want to advance. The system has not had to terminate anyone for failing to meet the requirement, she said.