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NICEVILLE, FL - Major financial measures to increase the number of nursing graduates from Florida's community colleges were announced Thursday as Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida and the Foundation for Florida's Community Colleges announced eligibility criteria for scholarships aimed at relieving a critical nursing shortage statewide.

The potential $5 million endowment was revealed at Tallahassee Community College during a meeting of the Florida Council on Resource Development attended by foundation executives and grants managers for Florida's 28 public community colleges.

The scholarships, seeded by a $2.5 million endowment established by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida (BCBSF) and matched by the Florida Legislature, will be awarded to students pursuing degrees in nursing and allied health professions. A focus of many of the scholarships will be to open educational and professional opportunities in nursing to population segments that are underrepresented in the field.

"Access to quality education is vital to creating skilled nursing and allied health professionals," said Niceville's Patrick Byrne, chairman, Foundation for Florida's Community Colleges. "The scholarship endowment gives us a sustainable resource to meet the essential health care workforce need."

Currently, the state of Florida is experiencing a severe shortage of nurses, and workforce studies project the need for 34,000 more nurses statewide by the year 2006. In Okaloosa and Walton counties, the nursing shortage projection is more than 3,500 over the next three years.

The number of scholarships available at each community college, including Okaloosa-Walton College in Niceville, will be determined by the number of nursing students enrolled full-time and the amount of dollars raised from local private sector companies and individuals to match the endowment. The scholarships will be awarded to eligible students by OWC's Nursing, Surgical Technician and Dental Assisting programs

"The local impact of this initiative is one of tremendous significance for the healthcare of Northwest Floridas residents", said Dr. Bob Richburg, OWC President. "As a steward of the resources made available through the endowment, OWC is ready to prepare the next generation of nurses and allied health professionals in our community. We invite local businesses and others to join us in support of this initiative."

Bobbi Pennington, OWC Foundation President said, "We are asking our community to help the college meet and exceed the matching opportunity from Blue Cross to increase scholarship assistance so that each nursing or health program student who needs financial aid will have it available."

Florida residents who are accepted and enrolled in a nursing or allied health program at an accredited Florida community college may be eligible to apply for the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida Endowed Scholarship through the OWC Foundation as early as the 2005-06 school year. Additional consideration will be given to students who are from culturally diverse and underrepresented populations in the nursing workforce.

According to Russ Jollivett, BCBS, group vice president for public affairs, "The endowed scholarships lay a foundation for educational opportunities in nursing statewide. Ultimately, increasing the number of nurses in the state will help promote a healthy future for all Floridians."

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida (BCBSF) seeks to have a sustained impact in a health care area of significant need, Jollivett said. Recent emphasis has been placed on grants that over time will improve a critical shortage of nursing and allied health professionals in the state. This strategic initiative totals a BCBSF commitment of approximately $10.5 million in nursing and health professional programs at private and public colleges and universities throughout the state.

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