Community health centers in need of doctors, nurses

There’s a growing labor shortage problem in primary health care in Colorado that could become much worse in the next few years with the full implementation of the federal health care reform act.

But Denver-based Colorado Community Health Centers – through its Colorado Community Health Network – is taking on the challenge of recruiting 5,000 new health care professionals to meet the expected need in 2014.

That’s when the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is expected to open up health care access to an estimated 540,000 Colorado residents who currently have no health insurance.

Tanah Wagenseller, Colorado Community Health Centers spokeswoman, said the challenge is going to be even greater given the politics around health care reform.

“It’s going to be a big challenge, especially if some of the health care dollars (in the act) don’t get funneled down,” she said. “And most community care centers are at capacity right now because the demand is so high.”

Indeed, increasing numbers of aging baby boomers are straining the health care system. Also, Colorado’s population is growing by about 100,000 each year. It’s estimated that 5,000 more health care professionals will be needed by 2014 to meet the expanded need and to replace retiring primary health care workers.

“The 5,000 is really all of the staff needed at Colorado health care centers, including doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, dentists, licensed social workers and administrative staff,” she said. “It’s essentially all of the people who are needed to run a health care center.”

Colorado has 131 community health center sites providing primary medical care to about 500,000 people, mostly low-income patients. Wagenseller said CCHC is working closely with local community health centers and university health care programs to churn out the needed professionals.

Kathy LaSala, director of the university of Northern Colorado School of Nursing , said enrollment is rising in all of UNC’s health professional programs, with new programs being added.

She noted that UNC began a new Doctor of Nursing degree program in 2010 as a post-master’s program. That program will be expanded next year to allow post-bachelor students to enroll, which should help speed up the pace of those degrees.

LaSala noted that the nursing shortage is in part due to a shortage of nursing faculty, and UNC is working to reduce that shortage through an online Ph.D in Nursing Education program.

And it’s not just happening at UNC, she said. “There’s a lot of initiatives both in Northern Colorado and around the state to increase enrollment and graduation. Statewide, since 2004, schools of nursing have doubled in enrollment,” she said.

LaSala said one hurdle is finding enough clinic sites for students to get real world experience.

In Northern Colorado, Salud Family Health and Sunrise Community Health are feeling the effects of the shortage of medical professionals.

Mitzi Moran, Sunrise Community Health CEO, said the demand on her clinicians is already high.

“We don’t have enough primary care right now to serve our population, regardless of health care reform,” she said.

Moran said in addition to working closely with UNC, Sunrise recently started high school-level job shadowing and internship programs with University Schools and Jefferson High School in Greeley.

At Salud, all dental students from the University of Colorado rotate through its clinics spread across Denver and Northern Colorado.

Jennifer Morse, Salud spokeswoman, said Salud partners with many medical programs in the state to provide the onsite medical providers it needs.

And it’s a great symbiotic relationship, she noted.

“We benefit from a lot of that service these students provide to our patients and it provides work experience for them,” she said.

Morse said studies show getting access to medical care at community health centers is less expensive than getting it from a private practice or emergency room, resulting in the kind of cost containment the federal health care act intended.

Community health care centers are expected to be the future of health care, but that future is uncertain, she noted.

“I think as long as we follow the roadmap that’s been laid out in the Affordable Care Act, with the incentives it includes, we should be well-poised to meet the demands of 2014,” she said.

“I think we’re on target as long as there’s not undermining of the Affordable Care Act. If that happens, it won’t be a well-enough established structure to build on.”

UNC’s LaSala calls the 5,000 community health center recruitment target “a lofty goal” but hopefully one that can be met.

“I think goals really help,” she said. “They help stimulate people to do something.”

Steve Porter covers health care for the Northern Colorado Business Report. He can be reached at 970-232-3147 or