Stimulus will provide $220 million for health care training

TOPEKA | U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said Tuesday that $220 million in federal stimulus funds will be disbursed to programs across the country to train workers in health care and other high-growth industries.

Tuesday was the first day that training programs could begin applying for the money through the Labor Department. Solis unveiled the plan during a tour of the Shawnee County Community Health Care Clinic in Topeka and the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., saying health care services would be one of the fastest-growing career fields over the next decade as the population ages.

“We know there’s a shortage,” Solis said after touring the clinic.

She devoted much of her remarks to health care and President Barack Obama’s desire to push a health care reform bill through Congress this summer. She said such training grants were part of the equation, helping to provide an adequate work force to meet demands in rural states and areas seeing high unemployment.

Solis said $25 million of the funds would be reserved for training in communities hurt by the recent restructuring of the auto industry.

The stimulus money will go to public entities and private nonprofit groups that train workers in health information technology, nursing, long-term care and allied health careers.

Solis said she didn’t know how many potential jobs could be created from the grants. But she said she hoped they would encourage private donors and foundations to match the dollars.

“This is a first down payment,” she said.

The Shawnee County health center in Topeka, which would be eligible for the aid, is home to the public clinic and county health department. It has a staff of 179 and treated nearly 7,000 clients in 2008, including many without health insurance.

The Labor Department will begin taking applications for the stimulus funds Tuesday.

Solis said reviews of applications would begin within two months and grants would be awarded by year’s end. She said applications that build on existing collaborations, such as programs through community colleges or technical schools, would be looked upon favorably.

The program targets people like Clayton Bledsoe, 40, a former quarry worker who began nursing training in 2006 when the economy began to sour. Solis pointed to Bledsoe, who took courses through Neosho County Community College in eastern Kansas and eventually earned his registered nursing degree, as an example of the type of retrained workers the program hopes to create.

Bledsoe works with geriatric patients at Anderson County Hospital in Garnett, about 50 miles south of Topeka.

He wanted to enter a field where “I wouldn’t have to worry about looking to find a job again,” Bledsoe said.

During her visit to the Kansas City medical center, Solis met with medical students who said they intended to return to their rural hometowns to practice after graduation. She also viewed a telemedicine demonstration, in which doctors in Kansas City used Web cameras to interact with and diagnose patients in remote areas of the state.

Solis said she hopes the grants boost such programs, as rural areas are especially hard-hit by a shortage of health care workers.