The University of Alaska Anchorage this week was awarded a $4 million federal grant that administrators say could help address a longstanding health care worker shortage in the state.
Alejandra Castillo, the U.S. assistant secretary of commerce for economic development, came to Alaska to announce the grant Thursday at the university’s Health Sciences Building.
“Here in Alaska, you were experiencing significant staff shortages in the health care sector before the pandemic, which exacerbated the departure of many state health care workers to the Lower 48,” Castillo said. “I’m honored to be with you to provide some good news.”
Castillo said the investment was part of a regional funding pool allocated through the American Rescue Plan, and that the university had been chosen from more than 500 applicants around the country to receive a portion of a $1 billion grant.
The money will be used to renovate UAA facilities and help support students pursuing careers in health, said Kendra Sticka, associate dean of clinical health sciences, who spoke at the event attended by several dozen people including state officials and hospital representatives.
The university plans to focus the funding on improving facilities for certified nursing assistants, surgical technicians and diagnostic medical sonographers in particular — “some of those health professions that are very high need, but don’t always come to the forefront,” Sticka said.
The expansion could mean nearly twice as many graduates in those programs over the next several years, she said.
She said the money would also allow for technical upgrades in classrooms that would improve virtual learning for students around the state.
Due in part to remote geography and limited degree programs, Alaska has long struggled to retain and recruit qualified health care workers, particularly nurses.
The availability of health care jobs “significantly outpaces opportunities for the education and credentialing they’re needed to land these jobs,” Sticka said.
In 2017, a broad study conducted by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration found there would likely be a significant nursing deficit by 2030 throughout the nation — especially in Alaska.
A root of the problem was that most nurses surveyed belonged to a larger, baby boomer generation about five to 10 years away from retirement, the study said.
Health care industry professionals in Alaska have said the pandemic drew attention to the problem and, in some cases, made it worse.
Months of stressful working conditions during wave after wave of COVID-19 led to increased turnover, burnout, early retirements and health workers leaving the profession all together.
Meanwhile, the state’s few schooling options for nurses and health care workers have many more applicants than spots to fill, and many hospitals continue to rely on a highly paid transient workforce from the Lower 48 to fill staff vacancies.
[In-state education options for Alaskans interested in nursing have been limited. That’s starting to change.]
Sticka said the funding was part of a broader health workforce expansion project that would bolster medical education clinical laboratory space at the university.
She said that all sectors of the state stand to benefit from an improved health care workforce, citing a study conducted last year by the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association that found that for every one job created in the hospital sector in Alaska, another 0.84 jobs are created in other industries.
“Supporting the growth of health care jobs in Alaska really supports employment opportunities across all sectors, and really is a big economic driver in our state,” she said.