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Stimulus Helps Clinics, Colleges Hire and Train Allied Health Workers

California schools that train allied health workers and the clinics and hospitals that hire them will benefit from injections of federal stimulus cash, transfusions that will allow schools to expand training programs and help clinics weather cutbacks in state funding at the same time they’re seeing patient loads increase.

Coming from different funnels and channeled into several programs, federal stimulus money has already begun to flow to California’s cash-strapped clinics. So far, 117 not-for-profit clinics in the state have been awarded $48.1 million representing 15% of the stimulus money spent nationally in this category.

Elia Gallardo — government affairs director at the California Primary Care Association, which represents more than 700 community clinics in the state — said clinics will use the money to beef up staffing, especially in “health professional shortage areas.”

“Most are in need of work force,” she said. “Seventy-three percent reported having open positions for at least three months, and 32% had physician positions open for at least a year.”

Much of the money will go to bolster the allied health positions, an area of specific need in clinics now and a projected long-term need for the state as a whole.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) last week announced a three-year, $32 million public-private initiative aimed at training more allied health workers. The state will direct $16 million in federal funds — $8 million in stimulus funds and $8 million from the Workforce Investment Act — to the initiative. Schools, hospitals and other private partners will provide $16 million in matching funds or donations.

Allied Worker Shortage Predicted

Allied health workers — a broad classification representing dozens of jobs providing a range of diagnostic, technical and therapeutic, direct patient care and support services — are crucial to most health care institutions, including hospitals, nursing homes, doctors’ offices and clinical laboratories. They are especially important in community clinics, which play a critical part of the state’s safety net.

A survey earlier this year showed more than 80% of California’s clinics reported difficulties in keeping allied health positions filled with qualified, trained personnel. The jobs of licensed vocational nurses, dental assistants and case managers are among the hardest to keep filled, according to the survey the California Wellness Foundation funded.

Personnel shortages are stretching clinics’ resources and staffs when patient loads are growing because of rising unemployment and fewer people with adequate health insurance.

The federal money already awarded to clinics translates to 896 new staff members who will help treat 303,474 new patients, almost half of whom will be newly uninsured because of the recession, according to estimates by the California Primary Care Association and the California Wellness Foundation.

Community Colleges Gearing Up

California community colleges each year enroll more than 72,000 students in health occupation programs, but projections show that won’t be enough to keep up with demand as California’s population ages and grows.

Barbara Whitney, health occupations specialist in the California Community Colleges chancellor’s office, said schools have a hard time expanding because health occupation programs are especially expensive to start and maintain.

“You have to have all the equipment that a hospital has and you have to be able to hire faculty who are licensed in their field,” Whitney said.

Colleges have seen some increase in students enrolled in health programs this spring but Whitney expects significant increases in fall enrollment.

The state initiative will roll out in 25 community colleges this fall and aim to enroll an estimated 700 additional allied health students.

‘Unprecedented’ Amount for Training

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act essentially doubles the amount of money available for job training in California to $488 million. The money will flow through the Workforce Investment Act and can be used in all occupation areas, including health care.

“The stimulus money for the public work force system is really an unprecedented amount of money,” said Virginia Hamilton, executive director of the California Workforce Association, a not-for-profit policy organization. “This money represents almost a doubling of the annual allocation the Workforce Investment Board gets,” Hamilton said.

Another $250 million is available at the national level, all of it earmarked for the health care industry, Hamilton said.

Hospitals, Physicians Applaud Initiative

C. Duane Dauner, president of the California Hospital Association, said even though some hospitals are cutting back on staffing because of the flagging economy, long-term staffing prognosis is not good.

“Despite the impact of the current economic crisis on California’s hospitals, the state is experiencing a long-term shortage of critical health care workers in many professions,” Dauner said in a statement supporting state efforts to increase allied health workers.

“During the past decade, shortages in the nursing profession have been widely publicized, leading to initiatives and efforts that have increased the capacity in nurse education programs. Meanwhile, less publicized shortages in other allied health care professions are threatening patients’ access to necessary care,” Dauner said.

Bill Barcellona, vice president of government affairs for the California Association of Physician Groups, agreed with the governor’s contention that the allied health training initiative will help the state’s overall economy.

“The Governor rightly identified health care organizations as job engines for the California economy, citing that this program will add tens of thousands of good paying jobs to California over the next few years,” Barcellona said in a release.

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