Gov. Janet Mills held a press conference on October 25 to announce funding for four programs intended to address Maine’s health care worker shortage by incentivizing people to pursue a career in medicine in the state.
Though Mills billed the initiatives as “new,” funding for the four programs was included in LD 1733, the bill that authorized spending for the $1.1 billion the state received from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
Though the bill was brought forward as an emergency measure, it did not receive the two-thirds majority vote in both houses required for it to be immediately implemented when it was passed on a party-line vote in the legislature and signed by Mills on July 19. As a non-emergency bill, the law went into effect 90 days after it had been signed, which means it went into effect last week.
At the October 25 press conference, Mills discussed four programs she said are intended to help bolster the state’s health care workforce in both the short-term and long-term. All together, the programs accounted for $14 million in spending funded with federal money.
The first initiative she discussed involved $4 million in federal funding that will be used to provide scholarships and student loan relief for people pursuing health care jobs.
LD 1733 authorized the Finance Authority of Maine to establish the Maine Health Care Provider Loan Repayment Pilot Program, available to healthcare professionals who commit to living and working in the state for 3 years. The program pays recipients up to $25,000 per year, for a three-year total not to exceed $75,000 or 50% of a recipient’s outstanding loan balance.
The same bill also provided one-time funding for the Doctors for Maine’s Future Scholarship Program.
Mills also announced $8.5 million in funding that will be used to make training for new skills and credentials cost free. Skills and credentials obtained through the program, Mills said, will help health care professionals move up the career ladder and improve retention rates and wages.
According to the relevant expenditure in LD 1733, “funds will be used for tuition remission for direct service health care professionals.”
LD 1733 also authorizes funding to “develop and refine health care career pathways and implement health care apprenticeships.”
While the first two programs Mills discussed are intended to address health care worker shortages in the long-term, the other programs the governor mentioned are meant to provide short-term help.
Mills also mentioned the state will be launching a $1.5 million media recruitment campaign that will run on social media, radio and other platforms. While Mills did not make it clear if the campaign will run in-state or out-of-state, LD 1733 authorizes funding for a “statewide multimedia campaign that promotes direct care worker jobs as a career choice.”
Finally, Mills announced $600,000 in ARPA funds that will be put toward services offered by healthcare career navigators.
Working within the state Department of Labor (DOL), LD 1733 authorized funding for two consultant positions in the CareerCenter. The consultants, whose positions exist through December 14, 2024, are required by the bill to “provide information on stackable credentials and prior learning credits and to assist out-of-state and foreign-trained health care workers to quickly recredential as licensed providers in the State.”
Mills announced the programs are scheduled to be implemented at the end of the year.
Also in attendance at the press conference were several representatives of Maine hospitals and trade associations. Chuck Hayes, the president and CEO of MaineGeneral Health; Angela Wethoff, the president and CEO of the Maine Health Care Association; and Darcy Shargo, CEO of the Maine Primary Care Association, all spoke in favor of the programs Mills announced.
DOL Commissioner Laura Fortman and Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew were also in attendance and answered questions from the press, as did Mills.
Asked how many health care workers she expected the programs to help, Mills responded by saying “in the thousands” before saying her administration doesn’t have a specific numerical goal for each program and estimating the number would be in the hundreds.
Mills was also asked what, as the October 29 date enforcement of the COVID-19 vaccination requirement for health care workers approaches, the programs will do to address current workforce shortages.
“Vaccination job requirement is something that its time has come and it will help keep not only workers safe but patients safe,” Mills said.
She added that once everyone who can be vaccinated has been, the state will be able to move beyond the issue.
“It’s the virus not the vaccine that’s the problem here,” Mills said.
Lambrew added that her agency has heard similar statements from health care workers. She also stated that workforce shortages existed before the pandemic and have been exacerbated by the pandemic and burnout among healthcare workers.
Mills was also asked whether her administration is doing anything to address workforce shortages resulting from the COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston announced recently it was suspending pediatric, heart attack, and trauma admissions. The hospital has blamed worker shortages stemming from the vaccine mandate for the suspension in service.
Mills responded by saying everything her administration is doing is designed to address the shortage.