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THE MIAMI HERALD
Neda Oqueli': Nurse's Effort Opens Doors For Fellow Puerto Ricans
BY LIZ NOLAN
November 24, 2002
Until this year, Neda Oqueli's Puerto Rican nursing license entitled her to work in Florida only with the Miami Veterans Administration Medical Center. If she and other Puerto Rican nurses wanted to work outside of a government hospital, they had to retake the nurse licensing exam, a $200 test that essentially duplicates the one they passed in their country, she said.
But thanks to Oqueli's efforts, nursing licenses from Puerto Rico, Guam and other U.S. territories are now recognized in the state, giving nurses from those areas broader options for employment and a possible solution to Florida's nursing shortage crisis, she said.
''Puerto Rican nurses deserve validation and they deserve respect,'' said Oqueli, a Cutler Ridge resident who has been a nurse for 16 years at Miami's VA hospital, 1201 NW 16th St.
Anna Pagan, operating room nurse manager at the VA hospital, said the accreditation tests at Puerto Rican colleges are the same ones used by Florida colleges.
''You have to understand we have to spend all the money to do something we have done before,'' she said. ``I am not a foreigner and my degree measures up to a degree in the U.S.''
The problem, said Dan Coble, executive director of the Florida Board of Nursing, is that while its nurses may be good, Puerto Rico uses a Spanish-language licensing exam that is not deemed equivalent to the NCLEX, the test developed by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing.
Oqueli, who earned her nursing degree in 1975 from Pontifical Catholic University in Puerto Rico, said she has been happy working in the VA hospital system but was bothered that all Puerto Rican nurses in Florida were limited to working in VA hospitals. Last year, she decided to do something about it.
Oqueli hired Wilson Jerry Foster, a Tallahassee attorney who specializes in healthcare issues. She did so alone, she said, because she did not want other nurses to risk their own money. She said she spent between $3,000 and $4,000 on legal fees.
Foster helped Oqueli draft a letter to Gov. Jeb Bush that was hand-delivered on Nov. 1, 2001. The timing couldn't have been better, Oqueli said. The governor had just introduced a bill to alleviate the nursing shortage in Florida.
Preliminary statistics show a vacancy rate for nurses at Florida hospitals at 12.5 percent, making the state's vacancy rate higher than the national average of 10.8 percent, said Cathy Allman, vice president of nursing and healthcare professions with the Florida Hospital Association.
The governor's bill called for financial measures, including grants for education and hospitals, to retain nurses. The original bill did not include accepting the accreditation of nurses from U.S. territories but, after Nov. 1, the provision was included. The provision allows Florida to recognize Puerto Rican nursing licenses without requiring the nurses to be retested.
''I can only speculate that her letter was directly on point and helped the governor expand the program,'' Foster said.
The Florida Board of Nursing worked with legislators to approve endorsing nurses who were in practice two of the previous three years, Coble said. House Bill 519 was signed in May, making Florida the only state granting licenses by endorsement to Puerto Rican nurses who took the Spanish-language exam instead of the NCLEX, said Kristin Hellquist, associate director of policy and external relations at the National Council of State Boards of Nursing.
Coble said when the law passed about 200 nurses with applications pending were notified the new provision may apply to them.
''I am really proud and happy that I accomplished this,'' said Oqueli, showing off her new license. ``I'll work for my nurses until the day I die.''
Gloria Marti, who has been at the Miami VA hospital for 16 years, welcomes the change.
''I'm very happy working at the VA [hospital], but now I have an opportunity to go for my master's degree,'' she said, adding that nurses are required to be licensed in the state where they plan to study.
Coble said many nurses who had not met the two-year requirement were unhappy.
''They would like to have a blanket endorsement,'' he said, ``but other states would not honor the Spanish exam endorsement.''
This situation, Coble said, could jeopardize Florida's licensing reciprocity with other states.
Dr. Lourdes Maldonado, president of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico Board of Nurse Examiners, said before July fewer than 250 nurses applied to come to Florida each year. Since July, more than 650 have contacted the board for credentials to support applications for licenses in Florida.
''Most very good nurses are leaving, especially those who speak English,'' Maldonado said. The nursing shortage is not as acute in Puerto Rico as it is in Florida, she said, but fewer people are applying to nursing schools there.
Maldonado had also hoped competition would cause the Puerto Rican government to improve conditions for nurses there, but so far there have been no changes.
Like nurses in Florida, those in Puerto Rico often work double shifts, Maldonado said, but new nurses start out at $12,000 in Puerto Rico and, after a few years, their salary increases to $15,000. According to Allman, nursing graduates in Florida start out at $33,000.
''The nurses are so happy,'' Pagan said. ``They felt they needed to be recognized. Neda did this in a very unselfish way.''
Oqueli, 50, thinks the new Florida law will help improve salaries for nurses working in Puerto Rico now that hospitals in the territory face increased competition.
Oqueli now plans to help other Puerto Rican nurses enjoy the same opportunity by setting up her own recruiting agency. She also wants to establishing a national organization for Puerto Rican nurses.
Born in Villalba, Puerto Rico, Oqueli attended Catholic University in Ponce and received her nursing degree in 1975, studying with the help of scholarships and loans, and became a nurse earning $7,000 a year.
She attended a VA recruitment meeting in Puerto Rico five years later and accepted a job at the New Orleans VA hospital, drawn by the higher pay of $22,000 -- three times what she made at home.
Oqueli, who has been on medical leave since Sept. 6, says whether it is in Puerto Rico or the United States, there is no difference in the job she does.
``Nursing is nursing wherever you are,`` she said. ``If you know nursing, you can be a nurse anywhere. The only difference is language.''
GET TO KNOW
Personal: Age: 50. Born in Puerto Rico. Came to Miami area in 1986. Lives in Cutler Ridge.
What She Does: She is a nurse at the Miami Veterans Administration Medical Center and is currently is on medical leave.
Family: Husband: Jorge. Supervisor at BJ's Wholesale in Cutler Ridge. Children: Jorge, 14, and Ivan, 12. Her son Eliudnet Reyes by a different marriage was a lance corporal in the U.S. Marines. He was killed in an accident in 1999.ep perceiving us as poor, marginal migrants who never learned to speak English. Don't let them.' "