Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina is handing out millions of dollars this year as part of its community health initiative. North Carolina Central University in Durham is one of the recipients.
BCBS of North Carolina Lead Medical Director John Smith visited NC Central to make the announcement on Thursday.
“Today, I am proud to announce that Blue Cross North Carolina is investing $1 million in North Carolina Central’s Nursing program," Smith said to a standing ovation and applause.
Smith says as a family practitioner, he knows how important nurses are to North Carolina’s health care system.
"They are on our front lines," Smith said. "Patients interact with them more than anyone else."
Smith said adding more qualified nurses to the field is even more imperative today. Numbers show the state is projected to have the second-largest shortage of nurses in the nation by 2024, second to California.
BCBS has committed to contribute a total of $50 million toward community health initiatives in 2018. It says says historically black colleges and universities like NC Central are important award recipients because a lot of the shortage is in nurses of color.
NC Central Chancellor Johnson Akinleye said much of the money from BCBS will be used for scholarships and financial aid to help increase the number of nurses across the state, especially in rural areas. Money will also go towards technology upgrades for the department's state-of-the-art "Eagle General Hospital," a major teaching tool.
“The nursing education, our preparation for them, the hands on, the research, the practice, the theory, all of those things are very important," said Akinleye. "And to do them, we need the money.”
Wanda Lawrence, chair of the NC Central's Department of Nursing, said the money is very timely because many of their students are non-traditional.
"Our students work. Some of them are head of households," said Lawrence. "So this partnership and the scholarships will be such a benefit to our students.”
Juan Wilkins, 27, is a senior in NC Central's nursing program. He says the BCBS investment in his school will help many students who come after him.
"I know the struggle, there are not a lot of financial opportunities," said Wilkins. "I had to get student loans."
Wilkins and his classmate, Onuorah Onyemize, 32, were dressed in their nursing whites during the announcement, standing up and applauding the news.
"We like the program," said Onyemize. "Everybody is like family."