The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee met Thursday to discuss the shortage of health care workers, especially in rural communities like Southwest Colorado.
Sen. John Hickenlooper, a member of the committee, emphasized the importance of using apprenticeship programs such as CareerWise Colorado in training high school students to become future nurses and health care workers.
“I’m very excited about ... the value of apprenticeships and looking at that on a broader scale in health care,” Hickenlooper said.
Hickenlooper also commended witness Dr. Leonardo Seoane, chief academic officer at Ochsner Health in Louisiana, for Ochsner’s nursing pre-apprenticeship program that targets high school sophomores to give them career training in the medical field.
He went on to talk about Colorado Public Health Works, a state program that connects AmeriCorps volunteers to registered apprenticeships run by the TrailHead Institute. The program is the first of its kind, Hickenlooper said, and was established last year to provide career entry into public health from local communities in Colorado.
“This allows AmeriCorps members to gain valuable, on-the-job apprenticeship experience while helping meet our public health needs at the same time,” Hickenlooper said.
In addition to helping solve the workforce shortage of health workers, both of these programs aim in part to address two critical issues in health care: underserved communities and lack of diversity.
In Durango, health services are classified as mid- to low-paying jobs. A lack of affordable workforce housing makes it increasingly difficult to recruit more health care workers.
It is estimated Colorado will be facing a shortage of 54,000 “lower-wage” health care workers, such as home health aides, residential care aides and nursing assistants, and more than 10,000 registered nurses by 2026, according to the Colorado Hospital Association.
In a rural community like Durango, this could mean a decline in health care providers.
Diversity of health care workers is an important factor in providing care to minority communities, especially in tribal and Native American populations. The programs would make careers in health care more accessible for people from minority groups, including the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes of Southwest Colorado. The HELP committee also has ambitions of using broadband internet technology to reach tribal communities via telehealth.
Apprenticeships would allow young students from minority and underserved communities to pursue careers in health care through the use of strategic recruitment and paid opportunities. They would also help in the placement of health workers, spreading them out from wealthy suburbs to rural communities and inner-city areas, where services are needed most.
“Women of color don’t get offered the same choices (in health care providers),” Hickenlooper said. “The only way we’re going to change that is really to change the makeup of who is attending to them.”
The HELP committee ultimately agreed that accessibility in health care in rural and minority communities is critical and should be a bipartisan issue. Hickenlooper, among other senators such as Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., and Maggie Hassan, D-New Hampshire, expressed support to address the shortage with educational, scholarship and apprenticeship programs.
Sarah Mattalian is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at email@example.com.