Gov. Martin O'Malley's plan to make it easier for veterans and their spouses to work in Maryland received warm reviews Tuesday from lawmakers and the Defense Department, but nurses suggested it could leave patients in the hands of unqualified workers.
Testifying on behalf of the Veterans Full Employment Act, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown said easing the transition into the civilian workforce is part of a "sacred obligation" society has to veterans.
A Department of Defense official praised the plan as among the most comprehensive in the nation, while Del. Susan W. Krebs, a Carroll County Republican, called it "probably one of the best bills we're going to pass this year."
The three-part proposal would require an expedited process for veterans and spouses of active-duty service members applying for licenses in more than 45 professions, including teachers, electricians, mechanics, doctors and real estate agents.
A second part would require universities to better translate military courses and experience into college credits. The third – and most controversial – would grant veterans and some spouses a temporary or "provisional" license until they met all of Maryland's licensing rules. Two House committees held hearings on the bill Tuesday.
Lawmakers said the provisional licenses have drawn concern from several groups, but the most vocal objection has come from a coalition of nursing associations and nursing schools, who say the temporary approval "poses a serious threat" to care. Under the proposed law, they say, someone could be authorized to work as a nurse without meeting all of the state's nursing standards.
"This is a public-safety issue because people who are not qualified could have 'RN' on their sleeve," said Mary Kay DeMarco of the Maryland Nurses Association.
Brown, a colonel in the Army Reserves who served in Iraq, dismissed the idea that military medical workers would not be qualified to work in the civilian sector. He said the bill's purpose is to direct licensing agencies to better understand the qualifications and experience veterans earn in the military.
"The quality of professional care in the military is as good if not better than any other health care," Brown said.
He told lawmakers that the details of executing the proposal will be a challenge, but said high unemployment among veterans and their spouses required the government to act.
In Maryland, unemployment among veterans under age 25 was nearly 2 percentage points higher in 2011 than among civilians of the same age, according to legislative analysts.
Dr. Laura Herrera, a deputy state health secretary, said the unemployment rate among military spouses is three times higher than among civilians.
Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Senate committee that is considering the bill, said state licensing boards also have expressed concern.
"Many of the boards have heartburn," Conway said, though she said most of them have since withdrawn their objections. She said her committee will likely vote on the proposal this week.