MANILA Philippines — Hospitals in Arkansas will not hire nurses who passed the nursing board exams in the Philippines this year attributing the decision to the recent scandal over the alleged leakage of exam answers to a number of nursing graduates in June.

This was disclosed by Dante Ang chairman of the Commission on Filipinos Overseas adding that the Philippines also lost its bid to become a testing site of the U.S. National Commission on Licensure Examination — commonly known as the NCLEX.

“We will not be included in the agenda of the [National Council of State Boards of Nursing] to be considered as a testing site ” Ang said.

Despite the allegations of cheating Filipino nurses will be able to find more employment opportunities in Southeast Asia with the expected liberalization of the nursing services in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The accord on the trade in nursing services is expected to be signed in December during the 12th ASEAN Summit in Cebu City Philippines according to Ernesto Herrera labor leader and former chairman of the Senate labor Employment and Human Resources Committee.

Passing the NCLEX is a pre-requisite for Filipino nurses to be able to work in American hospitals. About 83% of those who take the NCLEX in Guam Saipan and Hong Kong are Filipinos Ang said.

Aside from the $500 travel package a Filipino nurse pays to go to either Saipan or Guam the nurse also must pay the $200 NCLEX exam fee. Prior to this the nurse  also pays $100 to secure a tourist visa from the U.S. Embassy in Manila if he or she will take the exam in Guam aside from the passport processing fees paid to the Department of Foreign Affairs or a local travel agent.  While there is no visa required to go to Saipan the NCLEX center can only accommodate relatively few exam takers at a time.

An official of the Philippine Nurses Association was implicated after it was alleged that the official paid 7 million pesos [$135 000] to those who were preparing the test questions in exchange for advanced copies of the five-part exam. The official has since resigned from the association but denies the allegation.

The Philippines relies heavily on remittances from overseas Filipino workers to prop up the economy. A Filipino nurse is paid a starting salary of only $2 000 a year in local hospitals a stark contrast to the $36 000 starting salary he or she would receive working in a U.S. hospital. According to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration about 35 000 nurses have left the Philippines for jobs abroad from 2000 to 2005. Other countries which source nurses from the Philippines include the U.K. Japan and those in the Middle East. Independent estimates by recruiters of nurses in the Philippines show a shortage of some 120 000 in the U.S. this year.

Due to the alleged cheating that occurred in the June exams a local court on Aug. 18 issued a temporary restraining order on the oath-taking ceremonies of some 17 000 new nurses last Aug. 22.

Ang who also heads the task force formed by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to pursue the country’s bid to be an NCLEX testing center is supporting calls for the nurses to retake the exams. “We support the petitioners’ call for a retake in at least two of the subjects where there was a leak. We also support the invalidation of all the previous oath-takings made before the temporary restraining order was issued ” he said. About 2 000 nurses took their oaths at various PRC offices nationwide previous to the court order.

Ang’s view was supported by Sen. Richard Gordon member of the Senate Committee on Civil Service and Government Reorganization is investigating the leak.  He said retaking the exams was the only way to “restore the integrity and credibility” of the nurses’ licensure exam.

Ang said he received word that the state of Arkansas will not accept nurses who passed the local board exams this year “due to questions of competence” resulting from the leakage.

In March the National Council of State Boards of Nursing visited the Philippines to discuss with government officials the country’s bid to be an international NCLEX testing center.

The newly installed president of the Philippine Nurses Association asked for support from Filipino nurses abroad. In an open letter published on the group’s Web site Marilyn D. Yap said “We need all the support that we can get from you by helping us rebuild the image that is in question.  You have been our strongest proof that the quality of nurses from the Philippines is excellent…. The continuous excellence in your service delivery the kind words that you will say about the nursing profession and your prayers shall be our most effective means in strengthening the [association].” She also reiterated the Philippine Nurses Association’s stand and said “We are against all forms of cheating denounce dishonesty and supports all efforts and initiative to shed light in the pursuit of truth integrity and justice on the alleged irregularities committed in the conduct of the Nursing Licensure Examination.  We earnestly hope and pray that the matter can be resolved at the soonest possible time.”

Meanwhile Filipino nurses can look forward to more overseas employment opportunities in the months ahead with the scheduled adoption of a new agreement liberalizing the trade in professional nursing services within the ASEAN.

In a press statement Herrera secretary-general of the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines said “[Filipino] nurses can count on easier access to the lucrative job markets of ASEAN members once the Mutual Recognition Agreement on Nursing Services comes into force.” TUCP is an association of labor unions in the Philippines.

Herrera said “The covenant essentially means that Philippine-licensed nurses will be automatically recognized as nurse practitioners by other ASEAN members.”

According to Herrera the MRA would expedite the recognition of the qualifications of Filipino nurses and thus considerably ease their recruitment and deployment within the region.

“This means our nurses do not have to take the national nurse licensure examinations of other ASEAN members to be able to practice in those countries ” he said.

Singapore for example does not recognize nurses from the Philippines Herrera said. “For a Filipino nurse to practice in Singapore he or she has to pass the city-state’s nurse eligibility test similar to the NCLEX-RN ” he said.

At present most of the 4 000 foreign nurses working in Singapore are Filipinos. They all had to pass Singapore’s nurse licensure test Herrera said.

“The Philippines will be the MRA’s biggest beneficiary since we are now the world’s biggest exporter of nurses ” he said.

Since the Mutual Recognition Agreement is a pact Herrera said the Philippines would also automatically recognize nurses from other ASEAN members.

The Mutual Recognition Agreement is part of the region’s initial steps towards a free trade agreement. Members of ASEAN are Brunei Cambodia Indonesia Laos Malaysia Myanmar the Philippines Singapore Thailand and Vietnam. MBJ