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A state effort to ease Colorado’s dire shortage of health care workers will offer tuition-free training for several thousand students, providing a much-needed boost to hospitals and clinics. 

The Care Forward Colorado Program will invest $26 million of federal COVID stimulus funding into the program for two years, guaranteeing free schooling for students interested in becoming certified nursing assistants, emergency medical technicians, pharmacy technicians, phlebotomy technicians, medical assistants or dental assistants. 

The program, created through legislation supported by a bipartisan group of lawmakers during the last legislative session and signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis, has the potential to reach more than 4,000 students. Still, that’s far short of filling the workforce holes in hospitals and health systems: Colorado will have an estimated deficit of about 54,000 workers in lower-wage health care jobs by 2026, according to a 2021 report from Mercer, a human resources consulting company. But the new program is one way the state is working to close the workforce gap, particularly in rural regions.

Polis announced the program Wednesday at Arapahoe Community College in Littleton against a backdrop of students pursuing health care fields. He cited the need to bolster the workforce pipeline after many employees, burnt out from the pandemic, abandoned their jobs.

“There’s upward mobility in these careers as well as a steady living,” Polis said. “We only will increase our health care needs as our population grows older, and we want to make sure we have the caregivers and the people with the right training to take care of everybody.”

The program will be available at 19 community colleges and area technical colleges, “so it covers corner to corner of the state,” said Angie Paccione, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. Free training will be available to students beginning this fall through 2024.

One of those schools is Trinidad State College, which has campuses in Trinidad and Alamosa.

The college trains students as nurse aids, dental assistants, medical assistants and EMTs. The Care Forward Colorado Program will position the college to expand its health care programs and better meet the needs of communities in Las Animas and Huerfano counties and the San Luis Valley, college President Rhonda Epper said.

As a member of the board of trustees for Mt. San Rafael Hospital in Trinidad, Epper knows firsthand how badly local hospitals are hurting for trained staff, such as nurse aids and medical assistants.

“The number of job openings in all of these positions are increasing, and our health care providers in our communities are having trouble filling these positions,” Epper said. “So we are trying to serve the workforce need and we’re producing as many professionals as we can, but we’re limited by the number of students who come to us and then the ability of our own workforce to train the students.”

She said her college is fortunate to be fully staffed across its health care programs, but other colleges throughout the state struggle to find faculty.

Trinidad State College’s Berg Administration Building. The school opened in 1925 and was the first junior college in Colorado. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Trinidad State College will have the capacity to handle a surge of new students in the event more enroll to take advantage of the new state program. The school’s dental assistance program, for example, can accommodate a maximum of 12 students, but it is prepared to double its enrollment by running an evening cohort if necessary, Epper said.

Community colleges are among the most nimble when it comes to staffing their programs, as they can adjust the number of adjunct instructors they hire based on their enrollments, she noted.

But as education grapples with its own workforce shortages, some community colleges may not be poised to take on many more students.

“It is a challenge to fill faculty positions in any of these fields, particularly nursing,” Epper said.

Providing better care with workers who serve their own communities

The program, which could save students hundreds or thousands of dollars depending on their field, will also allow medical clinics that care for some of the state’s most vulnerable residents to tap into a new pool of trained professionals as they struggle to overcome staffing shortages.

The Colorado Safety Net Collaborative has about 50 clinics across Colorado that serve people who are uninsured or who qualify for Medicaid — the government insurance program for individuals who are low income or have a disability — with more than 60% of clinic patients being people of color. Some clinics are full service while others offer only dental services or medical services. Most of the collaborative’s clinics sit along the Interstate 25 corridor and at least seven are located on the Western Slope. 

Many clinics shut down during the pandemic and lost staff members who couldn’t afford to wait around to resume their work, managing consultant Phyllis Albritton said. 

Now, as clinics have reopened, they’re hurting for qualified staff who can fill critical roles, including medical assistants and dental assistants. The staffing deficiencies have meant clinics simply can’t see as many people day to day, including both in clinics that accept walk-in patients and those where appointments are required, Albritton said. She referenced one clinic in Littleton that had to scale back the number of people it could treat because it didn’t have enough staff, particularly medical assistants.

“As they’re able to fill those staff shortages then they can expand the number of visits that they can have each day,” she said.

The Care Forward Colorado Program is one way students can get connected with those in-demand jobs and secure free training to “serve the community that they live in,” Albritton said.

“Care is better when it’s provided by people that you feel comfortable with, and it’s an underestimated part of health care that makes a huge difference in people getting good quality care versus not good quality care,” she said, noting that clinics can work with community colleges to find people who are passionate about health care and get them into the training pipeline.

George Villalobos, who lives in Littleton, is among those students who wants to give back to the place he knows as home.

Villalobos is in his first week of college at Arapahoe Community College where he is studying to become an EMT and said he is “beyond thrilled” to be saving on tuition costs through the Care Forward Colorado Program. He said he can divert money he would have used for school to repairing his car and taking his family out to dinner.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis greets students pursuing health care careers after announcing Wednesday the launch of a statewide program that will make training free for students who want to jump into entry-level medical positions, including pharmacy technicians and emergency medical technicians. Polis announced the Care Forward Colorado Program during a media conference at Arapahoe Community College. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

“It directly invests in my future and the future of health care workers like me,” Villalobos said Wednesday during the governor’s media conference.

The program will cater to students who have just graduated from high school as well as others who want to change their careers later in life or go back to school after raising their families, Polis said.

Paccione, of the state department of higher education, sees the program as a promising avenue for students who became “confused about their future” during the pandemic and may have dropped out of school because they didn’t want to pay for remote classes or who decided to take a break known as a gap year.

She hopes the statewide program gets students to the first rung of their career — one that will lead them to a stable, long-term livelihood.

“For me, that’s what’s most important,” Paccione said. “I don’t want to just create jobs for people. That’s important, but what I want is to also have a line of sight to a career.”

Joe Garcia, chancellor of the Colorado Community College System, echoed that vision as community colleges and health care settings across the state try to rebound from recent downturns.

“We know that we lost students during the pandemic,” Garcia said. “That was a significant loss for us and for them, and certainly our health care organizations lost a lot of workers at a time when we could not afford as a state to lose those workers. We want to create opportunities for more students to come into our system at no cost and get some of these short-term certificates and degrees that will allow them to become health care professionals and then to build on those credentials in the future so they can advance their careers and their earning power.”

Erica Breunlin

Email: erica@coloradosun.com Twitter: @EricaBreunlin