Cantwell Introduces Legislation to Address Critical Shortage of Health Care Professionals

Proposal would increase training for allied health professions -improving quality of patient care and boosting economy

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today Senator Maria Cantwell announced that she has introduced legislation to address the critical shortage of workers in the allied health professions, a broad range of health care occupations that require significant training and education. Cantwell's bill, the Allied Health Reinvestment Act (S. 2491), is cosponsored by Sen. Jeff Bingaman and Sen. Joe Lieberman.

"Unfilled jobs in the allied health professions have a real effect on Washington's hospitals. When I meet with hospital officials, they always tell me how the lack of technicians affects the care that patients receive," Cantwell observed. "Creating greater opportunities in the allied health professions will not only improve patient care, it will spur job growth and help boost our economy. Training people to fill these openings could create more than 40,000 jobs."

Allied health professions include professionals in the areas of dental hygiene, dietetics/nutrition, emergency medical services, health information management, clinical laboratory sciences/medical technology, cytotechnology, occupational therapy, physical therapy, radiologic technology, nuclear medical technology, rehabilitation counseling, respiratory therapy, and speech-language pathology/audiology. Cantwell's bill recognizes all of these fields as allied health professions, and also allows the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to add professions he or she deems eligible.

"We are grateful for Sen. Cantwell's initiative to build a diverse, qualified workforce that will not only ensure the continued delivery of high quality health care but provide Washingtonians meaningful, well-paying jobs," said Troy Hutson, Executive Director of the Health Work Force Institute at the Washington State Hospital Association.

"The introduction of this bill signifies Sen. Maria Cantwell's leadership and support for developing a future workforce to provide quality care for patients," said Diane Cecchettini, the president of MultiCare, an independent group of doctors, nurses, clinics, and hospitals based in Tacoma, Washington. Chronic, severe workforce shortages among the allied health disciplines currently exist throughout the United States. The American Hospital Association (AHA) reports a nationwide vacancy rate of ten percent for laboratory technologists; 15.3 percent among imaging technicians; 12.7 percent among pharmacy technicians; and 18 percent for radiologic technologists. In Washington state, the state Hospital Association reports vacancy rates of 14.3 percent among ultrasound technologists, 11.3 percent among radiology technicians, and 10.9 percent among nuclear medicine technologists.

"Senator Cantwell's legislation will help us meet the high demand for training in allied health professions," said Dr. Gary Livingston, Chancellor and CEO of the Community Colleges of Spokane. "These new resources will help us strengthen our close collaboration with area hospitals and health care providers to maintain access to high quality health care while continuing growth in a key sector of our regional economy."

"The medical ecosystem in our rural areas is exceedingly fragile," said Steve Burdick, Operations Administrator at Centralia Providence Hospital. "Access to health care is frequently the domain of the allied health professional. Nurse practitioners, physical therapists, and radiology technicians are the backbone of our rural delivery systems. The ability to compete for these talented and increasingly rare individuals is compromised in the rural areas by the demographics of age and poverty. Senator Cantwell's legislation is crucial to creating the capacity in rural areas to care for our most vulnerable citizens."

Why Cantwell's bill is needed:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that in the period 1998-2008, the United States will need a total of 93,000 new professionals in clinical laboratory science between the 53,000 new positions that will be needed and the 40,000 existing vacancies. That averages 9,000 openings per year for technicians; and yet academic institutions are producing only 4,990 graduates annually. If these numbers stay constant, we will be short by 43,100 needed technicians in 2008.

According to the American Hospital Association, declining enrollment in health education programs contributes to the critical shortages of health care professionals. Similarly, data from a November 2002 study of 90 institutions by the Association of Schools of Allied Health Professions (ASAHP) shows a three-year period of decline in enrollment in cardiovascular perfusion technology, cytotechnology, dietetics, emergency medical sciences, health administration, health information management, medical technology, occupational therapy, rehabilitation counseling, respiratory therapy, and respiratory therapy technician programs. As an indication of a worsening situation, data from the 2002-2003 academic year, alone, shows that dental hygiene, physician assistant, and speech-language pathology and audiology should be added to this list.

What Cantwell's bill will do:

Cantwell's legislation would amend Title VII of the Public Health Service Act to provide incentives for individuals to seek and complete high quality allied health education and training. It would also provide additional funding to ensure that such education and training can be provided to allied health students so that the U.S. healthcare industry with have a supply of allied health professionals needed to support the nation's health care system in this decade and beyond.

The bill offers allied health education, practice, and retention grants. Education grants will be used to expand the enrollment in allied health education programs, especially by underrepresented racial and ethnic minority students, and provide educational opportunities through new technologies and methods, including distance-learning. Practice grants are intended to establish or expand allied health practice arrangements in non-institutional settings to demonstrate methods that will improve access to primary health care in rural areas and other medically underserved communities. Retention grants are intended to promote career advancement for allied health personnel.

The Allied Health Reinvestment Act borrows from the example of the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) program, championed by former Sen. Warren Magnuson (D-WA), which encourages recent medical students to serve in underserved areas throughout the nation in return for loan repayment assistance. Like the NHSC program, this Allied Health Reinvestment Act will establish a scholarship program that provides scholarships to individuals seeking allied health education in exchange for service by those individuals in rural and other medically underserved areas with allied health personnel shortages.

At least twenty organizations support Cantwell's Allied Health Reinvestment Act including, but not limited to: the Washington State Hospital Association; the Health Work Force Institute in Seattle; the American Association of Community Colleges; the American Society of Radiologic Technologists; American Dental Hygienists' Association; the National Network of Health Career Programs in Two-Year Colleges; and the College of Health Deans.