Alaska News

Campaign to boost Alaska’s health care workforce gets a nearly $10 million infusion

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A nonprofit that works to increase health care access in Alaska has received nearly $10 million in federal funding to bolster the state’s chronically understaffed medical workforce, especially support staff.

The $9.7 million grant was announced earlier this month by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo. The grant, funded through the American Rescue Plan Act, was awarded to just 32 recipients nationally out of 509 applicants.

The money will be shared with roughly 40 different organizations around the state over the next three years, according to Nancy Merriman, CEO of the nonprofit Alaska Primary Care Association. The association estimates the funds could support more than 3,000 Alaskans during that time, Merriman said.

Alaska is currently in the midst of a significant health care worker shortage that existed before the pandemic but has worsened as many nurses and other frontline workers in the field retired or left the field altogether after months of exhausting or untenable working conditions during multiple COVID-19 surges.

A 2021 scorecard from the state health department noted that “Alaska has a workforce shortage across many health and behavioral health-related disciplines and has difficulty meeting the healthcare industry’s demand.”

Jared Kosin, president of the Alaska Hospital & Healthcare Association, recently called worker shortages the biggest pressure point currently facing health care facilities around the state.

Merriman said the association plans to spend the grant money in three main ways: introducing high school students to health careers; offering trainings and basic certifications for Alaskans looking to quickly switch careers; and expanding an existing apprenticeship program focused on health care jobs that would allow participants to earn a living wage while learning a new trade.

In recent years, solutions to the state’s medical workforce shortage included plans to increase the number of spots in the state’s medical school and open more schooling options for Alaskans interested in nursing careers.

Merriman said that while increasing the number of health care providers in the state was important, the grant also aimed to address shortages in support staff.

“We still absolutely need doctors and nurses and nurse practitioners and (physician assistants) but we also need people to to work directly hands-on with with Alaskans in other ways,” she said.

Some of the more overlooked but equally important careers include medical billing and coding, medical and dental assistants, pharmacy technicians and community health workers, Merriman said. The organization plans to add six new apprenticeship tracks using the funds.

“The great thing about an apprenticeship is that it’s a job,” she said. “So people learn while they earn, and are learning a new trade.”

The goal of the short-term trainings and certifications is to kick-start careers for people who don’t want to invest in lengthy educational programs or go into debt before they begin their careers, Merriman said.

The plan was to offer “a three-week course that’s free,” she said. “And they’ll come out of that with basic, entry-level certifications, so that they can get matched with with actual jobs in the field.”

Opportunities for high school students included working with school districts to offer “explore camps” and other introductions to many health careers.

Merriman said the planning stage of the project was expected to begin Sept. 1, and that Alaskans can follow Alaska Primary Care Association’s social media pages for updates.

They can also visit the organization’s website for a list of current opportunities.

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Annie Berman

Annie Berman covers health care for the Anchorage Daily News. She's a fellow with Report for America, and is a graduate of the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. A veteran of AmeriCorps and Vista volunteer programs, she's previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in the Bay Area.

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