N.C. Central University's nursing program is getting $1 million from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina as part of the Durham-based insurer's announced plan to channel money into community health initiatives this year.
NCCU intends to apply the donation to scholarships for low-income and rural students, preparing nursing graduates for the state licensure exam and upgrading the technology in its Eagle General Hospital training lab.
NCCU's nursing program is both affordable for students and has long-term goals that match the state's needs, said John Smith, lead medical director for Blue Cross.
"If we want to invest, we want to invest into a quality institution," Smith said. "They're committed to diversifying the nursing profession, as well as having nurses go in to under-served areas, rural areas [and] low-income areas, which is really where the shortage is."
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Blue Cross accepts estimates that North Carolina by 2024 could have the nation's second-largest shortage of nurses, after California's. The state's 80 rural counties will account for the bulk of that, the insurer says, anticipating a resulting cycle of wage increases in the profession to fuel parallel increases in health-care costs.
On NCCU's end, officials welcome an opportunity to expand scholarship money.
"I can't tell you how many emails and phone calls [I get] are from students who come in and say, 'Dr. Lawrence, do you have any extra funds?'" said Wanda Lawrence, chairwoman of the nursing department. "Many of our students are non-traditional. Our students work. Some are heads of households. So we plan to use the money to help with scholarships for our students."
The insurer's donation is part of a $50 million effort it announced in February to bolster community health programs. Among other things, it's putting money toward primary care medicine, early childhood development and combating the opioid-addiction problem.
So far, many of the recipients Blue Cross has identified have local ties. They include the TROSA drug treatment program, along with various research and service program at Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill.
Blue Cross says it's funding much of the initiative with $40 million in savings it expects from the winter's federal tax-cut legislation. But it booked $734 million in net income in 2017, a year that saw its actual tax liability to all levels of government increase to nearly $512 million.
The donation will count toward NCCU's annual fundraising target, which for 2017-18 is $7.7 million. Vice Chancellor for Advancement Harriet Davis, NCCU's chief fundraiser, said the Blue Cross offer is the insurer's largest gift to NCCU and came together relatively quickly.
Campus leaders used Thursday's announcement to showcase the nursing department, particularly for state Rep. Mickey Michaux, state Rep. Marcia Morey and state Sen. Mike Woodard.
"Keep the money flowing," said Michaux, an NCCU alumnus, urged Blue Cross officials. "We can use $2 million. And $3 million after that."