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States consider expanding role of nurse practitioners

CHICAGO - A nurse may soon be your doctor.

With a looming shortage of primary care doctors, 28 states are considering expanding the authority of nurse practitioners. Such nurses with advanced degrees want the right to practice without a doctor's watchful eye and to prescribe narcotics. And if they hold a doctorate, they want to be called "Doctor."

For years, nurse practitioners have been playing a bigger role in the nation's health care, especially in regions with few doctors. With 32 million more Americans gaining health insurance within a few years, the health care overhaul is putting more money into nurse-managed clinics.

Those newly insured patients will be looking for doctors and may find nurses instead.

The medical establishment is fighting to protect turf. In some statehouses, doctors have shown up in white coats to testify against nurse practitioner bills. The American Medical Association, which supported the national health care overhaul, says a doctor shortage is no reason to put nurses in charge and endanger patients.

Nurse practitioners argue there's no danger. They say they're highly trained and as skilled as doctors at diagnosing illness during office visits. They know when to refer the sickest patients to doctor specialists. Plus, they spend more time with patients and charge less.

"We're constantly having to prove ourselves," said Chicago nurse practitioner Amanda Cockrell, 32, who tells patients she's just like a doctor "except for the pay."

Medicare, which sets the pace for payments by private insurance, pays nurse practitioners 85 percent of what it pays doctors. An office visit for a Medicare patient in Chicago, for example, pays a doctor about $70 and a nurse practitioner about $60.

The health care law gave nurse midwives, a type of advanced practice nurse, a Medicare raise to 100 percent of what obstetrician-gynecologists make - and that may be just the beginning.

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