PORTLAND (AP) – A nursing shortage in northern and eastern Maine was avoided Monday when foreign health care workers were given a one-year extension on when they must meet new regulations to keep working in the United States.

Hospitals near the Canadian border feared they would have a lack of health care workers when new federal rules go into effect next Monday. Hospitals, nursing homes and other health care providers along the Canadian border rely heavily on the Canadian labor pool.

The deadline extension caused hospital officials to breathe easier.

Houlton Regional Hospital was ready to temporarily shut down its intensive care unit and maternity ward if the deadline hadn’t been extended, said Chief Executive Officer Thomas Moakler. About 15 of the hospital’s 30 Canadian nurses had not been certified.

“With a year extension, what could have been a real crisis has been averted,” Moakler said.

Under the new rules, health care workers from Canada and Mexico, other than physicians, must obtain certificates showing they have education, training and experience comparable to requirements for U.S. health care workers. They must take exams and be licensed in the states where they practice.

In Maine, most foreign nurses passed the exams and submitted their materials, but many have not been certified because the paperwork is tied up in processing. The backlog has caused problems for many hospitals along the Canadian and Mexican borders, said Christopher Bentley, spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Bentley said the deadline extension ensures that the health care systems along the borders will not be disrupted.

The new deadline applies to health care workers who were working in the United States before Sept. 2, 2003 and who held a license from a U.S. jurisdiction.

David Peterson, president of The Aroostook Medical Center in Presque Isle, said his facility last fall lost seven Canadian nurses who decided they didn’t want to take the exam and do the paperwork to become certified.

Ten or so other nurses are still waiting to get their certifications from the federal government, he said.

“This is an extremely positive event for the hospitals and the nurses,” Peterson said. “This will give us some breathing room.”

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