Free education offered to health care students

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis greets students pursuing health care careers at Arapahoe Community College 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)

Including Trinidad State

STATEWIDE– 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 resource consulting company. But the new program is one way the state is working to close the workforce gap, particularly in rural regions.

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 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.

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.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was edited for length.)