Many of us take for granted the high quality care that nurses provide. Most likely, you have seen a nurse in your physician’s office, a retail clinic, in a hospital setting or even an outpatient clinic just to name a few. Every day they work to address our health and emotional needs by providing the highest quality care.

What you may not know is that nurses have quietly evolved over the past several decades to become an irreplaceable piece of our health care system architecture – they are a load bearing wall, not a support beam. Nurses are more likely to provide care in rural areas where there are primary care shortages. They can be instrumental in increasing access to basic care, connecting patients to needed physician services and other health care resources while saving the system money. They embody high quality, cost efficient care.

Some states recognize the growing importance of nurses and have passed laws expanding their scope of practice so that they may better support the needs of consumers and save taxpayer dollars. To learn more and to find out if your state has expanded the nurse practitioner’s scope of practice, visit Community Catalyst’s Medicaid report card.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) also recognizes nurses as vital to our health care economy and harnesses their potential by investing in an expansion of the nurse workforce. The ACA provides funds to enhance the Nursing Student Loan Program (NLP) along with the Nursing Workforce Diversity Program. These programs allow students from disadvantaged backgrounds to access nursing educational opportunities and in return, work in disadvantaged areas, increasing patient access to care. The ACA also invests in the Nurse Education, Practice and Retention grant program, providing nurses with a stronger understanding of quality improvement.

And its not just the nurse specific provisions where nurses will positively affect our health care system –their role is evident throughout the ACA. One important program for nurse involvement is health homes or medical homes. This pilot, – which many states have taken up, emphasizes team care over individual care giving. The goal is for a team of providers to collaborate and better support patients with chronic illness than a single provider – and at lower cost with better results. Nurses are instrumental in this approach as they play an important role in guiding team medicine and freeing up physician resources for more complex patient demand. This is the direction of the future of medicine – using all of our providers’ talents to maximize efficiency and quality for patients.

This week as we celebrate National Nurses Week, take a moment to thank a nurse. Everyday nurses are advocating for our health, caring for our needs and leading us to a more sustainable health care system. As over 16 million new Medicaid eligible patients enter the health care system come 2014, we need nurses more than ever.

— Eva Marie Stahl, Policy Analyst