Blues and college system combat worker shortage

Alliance providing funds for scholarships

In hopes of averting a looming crisis that threatens to restrict access to quality health care, several Maine organizations have teamed up to work collaboratively to address the shortage of nurses and other health care workers. The Augusta-based Maine Hospital Association (MHA), Maine Community College System (MCCS), and Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield have formed the Health Care Workforce Alliance.

The initiative, launched by a joint investment of $400,000, will expand two health programs into underserved rural areas — a nursing program in Dover-Foxcroft and a radiologic technology program in Aroostook County — and provide 100 new scholarships for young adults pursuing health careers.

"No matter how well equipped the hospital building, people administer care to patients," says Steven Michaud, MHA president, in announcing the alliance. "Without a new generation of health care professionals, hospitals won’t be able to meet the increased need for services expected in the next 10 years."

"We know that the vast majority of graduates from the technical colleges — soon to be community colleges — stay and find work in their communities," adds Jim Parker, general manager of Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield. "By expanding health care worker training, we will help address the ongoing need for a skilled work force to meet hospital-based health care needs. Doing so is one of the right answers to helping control rising costs."

MHA takes initiative

The initial discussions about a possible alliance began in 2002, recalls Alice Kirkpatrick, director of public affairs for MCCS, based in Augusta.

"The MHA approached John Fitzsimmons [MCCS president] about the shortage to see if there were ways to address what’s becoming a crisis," she says. "They had a dialogue, and John suggested he meet with other folks here and come up with more specifics. He also approached Anthem, because the health care worker shortage ultimately impacts costs and health care [reimbursement] rates, so it’s in all of our interest to alleviate the shortage."

The intent of the proposals, Kirkpatrick explains, is to financially support the expansion of health care programs and, through the scholarships, attract young people into field. "MCCS has been working for some time to expand our programs and other initiatives, and some funding from the state and other sources have helped us expand a bit, but these are costly programs to run and progress has been incremental," she says. "We’ve had a broader goal; these are good jobs, available in every region in Maine, and they offer good benefits."

Addressing the need

Currently, Maine hospitals have a vacancy rate of 8.35% for RNs and 13.3% for radiological technicians, Kirkpatrick reports. "Other positions face shortages, but those are the most severe," she says.

Accordingly, MHA and MCCS are each providing $100,000, to be divided evenly among Eastern Maine Technical College (EMTC) in Bangor and Northern Maine Technical College (NMTC) in Presque Isle for two projects. EMTC will partner with Mayo Regional Hospital to expand its nursing program into Dover-Foxcroft. Mayo Regional Hospital has committed $80,000 to develop a nursing laboratory at the Penquis Center. NMTC will develop a radiologic technology program in Aroostook County, partnering with EMTC, which has a highly regarded program already in place, as well as Aroostook Medical Center and Eastern Maine Medical Center.

In addition, the three alliance partners will contribute equally to a total $200,000 toward scholarships for students ages 17-24 who are admitted to a technical college health care program. Recipients will receive up to $1,000 for each year of a one- or two-year program.

The MHA and MCCS will collaborate in the development of a long-term plan to identify the most pressing work force needs and to seek funding sources to expand educational opportunities and scholarships. "Overall, we just have to keep at this," says Kirkpatrick. "This is a wonderful start, but the demand is so severe, we need to find ways of expanding the program and attracting people into the field."

Other potential funding sources may include the state, federal grants, foundations and private donors, and the health care industry, she says.

[For more information, contact:

Jean Mattimore, Maine Community College System, Center for Career Development, Two Fort Road, South Portland, ME 04106. Telephone: (207) 767-5210.]