Keenan: Salem State labs could alleviate nursing shortage

Ethan Forman/Staff photoPatrick Sullivan, Massachusetts president of People's United Bank, moderates a panel discussion on health care and education in 2020 at a North Shore Chamber of Commerce breakfast in Danvers on Wednesday.

DANVERS — "If any of you can speak to the governor today, please let him know that we need our science lab," Salem State University President John Keenan implored local business leaders Wednesday morning.

Keenan, in a lighthearted moment during a North Shore Chamber of Commerce breakfast forum, spoke about the university's need to renovate the Horace Mann building on its North Campus and add science labs to help alleviate a shortage of nurses on the North Shore, where health care is a top employer.

The event, held at the Danversport function facility on Elliott Street, was moderated by Patrick Sullivan, the Massachusetts president of People's United Bank, and panelists were leaders of some of the larger nonprofit employers in the region: Keenan; Care Dimensions President and CEO Patricia Ahern; and Phil Cormier, president of Beverly and Addison-Gilbert hospitals of Beth Israel Lahey Health.

When Sullivan asked the panel about what keeps them up at night, Ahern replied that the nursing shortage is her biggest concern.

"What I do for a living, you can never be in a position where you are over-promising and under-delivering," she said.

"Exactly the same," Cormier said.

"And, I have the answer to their problem," Keenan offered.

In 2020, Keenan said, he needs the governor, the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, and the state secretary of Administration and Finance to approve the new science labs.

"If I get my new science labs approved, it's a $60 million project — $25 million from the commonwealth — I will be able to provide them with the nurses they need to provide care to all of you," said Keenan, referring to the nursing shortage, which he called a crisis.

The nursing program has a cap on enrollment, and needs more purpose-built labs to expand. 

Keenan, who serves on the North Shore Workforce Investment Board, said in light of the need for health care and IT workers in the region, Salem State is undertaking a campus unification and modernization project known as SSU BOLD.

It's a $60 million plan, which includes the sale of South Campus and putting those proceeds into North Campus with the renovation of the former Horace Mann Lab School building with upgraded nursing and occupational therapy simulation labs, as well as general classroom space; the construction of a small addition to Meier Hall for seven flexible wet labs for biology and chemistry; and the re-purposing of space in the Berry Library for more class space.

Keenan said higher education will continue to evolve to the point where a diploma will no longer be the end of a graduate's education. As they need more skills in such areas of artificial intelligence, he wants them to turn to Salem State, one of the leading generators of workers on the North Shore.

The college has about 8,000 students, and about 800 "benefited employees" and 570 "non benefited" employees. 

Ahern heads up one of the leading hospice and care providers for life-threatening illnesses, and she said her Danvers-based nonprofit organization, which has 700 employees, faces a shortage of nurses, and a dip in giving amid reforms to tax laws that made charitable giving less attractive to donors.

Ahern said there are several things every nonprofit in the state and nation is thinking about.

"One of them is, we will see much more federating, much more circling of the wagons," Ahern said. "We will find our way to partnerships with universities and hospitals and other not-for-profit organizations. Certainly, we'll find like minded community-based organizations that want to work with us as an orchestra to take care of the frail and ill in our communities, rather than as soloists."

"Honestly," Ahern added, "whoever would have thought that a hospice would have a significant partnership with an ambulance company at Cataldo, right? And so there will be many, many more partnerships that are coming our way, because we are all trying to do good work and we can do it better, together."

The focus in the coming year will also be "on sustainability and earned income," which is at risk due to negative trends in giving due to "tax disincentives," she said. There is a need for partnerships in the community, and what Care Dimensions has learned is people are looking for a partnership when it comes to supporting a nonprofit.

She gave the example of the Bertolon family and its philanthropy, which supports many organizations on the North Shore.

"They have come forward to us, asked for a project, which turns out to be a supportive program for grieving children in schools," Ahern said. In November, after a Higgins Middle School eighth-grader died after being struck on his bicycle on Route 114 in Peabody, "the principal of the school (called) us to help take care of his school community." 

Beverly Hospital's Cormier noted that his health care organization — which has facilities in Beverly, Gloucester, Lynn and Danvers — is still one of the largest employers in those communities and on the North Shore, with approximately 2,900 employees.

Cormier said the health care industry should continue to see mergers and acquisitions.

"Unfortunately, scale is necessary to be successful in the health care industry in Massachusetts," said Cormier, who also looked forward to coming health care reform legislation in 2020, something he said almost happened last year.

Cormier said he hopes to announce later this year that Beverly Hospital is going to do a "much needed" inpatient expansion and modernization project, focused around maternity and orthopedics.

"And that'll be a great thing," said Cormier. "I can't say too much about it right now because I don't have permission yet."

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.

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