Nurses (search) at veterans hospitals could opt for more flexible schedules under a bill the House passed Thursday to address a shortage of nurses.

The bill proposes three alternative schedules designed to attract and retain more nurses at Veterans Affairs (searchhospitals:

_Nurses who work three regularly scheduled 12-hour shifts in one week, for a total of 36 hours, would be paid as though they had completed a 40-hour week.

_Nurses working seven regularly scheduled 10-hour shifts in a two-week period would be paid for 80 hours.

_Nurses working full time for nine months could choose to get paid over 12 months.

"Offering more family-friendly schedules is critical to keeping experienced nurses employed in the VA," said Rep. Robert Simmons, R-Conn., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee's health subcommittee.

The bill passed on a 411-1 vote. Rep. Nick Smith, R-Mich., was the lone member to vote against it. Identical provisions are being considered by the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee (searchand could be attached to another bill by the end of the year.

The House bill would also create a pilot program utilizing private recruiting, advertising and public relations firms to help recruit and retain nurses. It also directs the VA to make grants to states to pay for hiring, retention and incentive programs.

The Department of Veterans Affairs health care system is looking to fill 4,500 nursing slots - a vacancy rate of 9 percent. That shortfall could become more critical as the number of veterans enrolled in the system grows from 7.6 million to an estimated 8.4 million by 2010.

The VA is looking hard at attracting younger nurses. A report by the agency a year ago showed the average age of a VA nurse was 48.9 years, compared with a nationwide average age of 4l.8 years for all nurses.

"The VA can't be a pay leader but has to come up with creative ways to both attract nurses into the VA and to retain existing experienced nurses," said Deborah Beck, executive director of the Nurses Organization of Veterans Affairs, a group for VA registered nurses.