On Monday, Harris sent a letter to Larry Summers, the director of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, and numerous other federal officials calling for a comprehensive, national health care system — one that will address the lack of workers able to serve in the health care field.
Among the responses she received from those officials was this statement: “Our suggestion is to look for innovative ways to expand the pool of nurses, such as incentivizing those with postsecondary education and training programs to work in the industry and support any workforce development efforts.”
The question is: What do we do to get Americans ready for careers in health care?
Promising new jobs
According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are around 2.6 million job openings in health care and social assistance — job types that include everything from administrative and technical jobs to medical assistants and physicians and dentists.
Harris’ stance on the topic is consistent with one her Senate colleague Tim Kaine has taken. In 2017, he also asked for federal resources to address the need for health care workers.
But at the same time, many health care jobs exist in the field because a lack of workers is the result of a lack of regulatory approval, iffy educational qualifications or, in some cases, an economic downturn. Others are just great entry-level jobs in fields such as dental hygiene and information technology. And she acknowledges this, too.
“No job is as productive in creating wealth and improving health as health care. Health care is a key sector of the American economy — the country spends over a trillion dollars a year on health care, and this year alone it will add more than one million new jobs,” she writes.
A retooled health care workforce
With this in mind, Harris discusses four key areas in the health care system that she says must be put under the microscope: “The qualifications of the workforce, the quality of the training and education, the impact of regulatory standards, and how these regulations are updating with the dynamics of health care.”
For example, allowing more federally funded insurance schools, allowing students to take credit at community colleges and allowing graduates to take credits online, which can also lower costs, are some of the possibilities, she says. In her letter, she calls these “creative strategies” and expresses hope that “this discussion encourages you to explore new ways to help expand the pool of students in health care who have the skills and education necessary to address our future workforce needs.”
In addition, Harris raises concerns about how the current regulatory process for health care regulations can create “mistakes,” adding that it is “disturbing” to find that federal agencies were “still legislating health care policies that were made decades ago.”
In her letter, she points to five areas of concern, including letting “federal regulators make decisions that affect everyone” and studying health care trends to see what is happening, “especially around oncology and surgery.”
When it comes to issues in the construction of health care facilities, Harris tackles the issue of constructing “public health facilities for example, day care centers, mental health treatment programs, or crisis facilities” on public land — these facilities would also serve as facilities that help support health care programs.
Finally, she addresses mental health care — one of the gaps that currently exists in the care of those with mental illness. “We need to identify the best models for the treatment of mental health challenges in each community and ensure that there is the capacity to expand these approaches in the future,” she writes.
Comments on Harris’ letter
In response to her letter, a representative from Vermont says they are exploring the “technology and behavioral health workforce shortage that exists in Vermont” and is looking for programs to address this. In addition, the representative referred Harris to a report by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that addresses this issue.
A representative from Georgia declined to comment, saying the request was not yet complete.
And a representative from California also declined to comment, due to a request by Harris’ office to be provided with “sensitive” information about the specifics of its federal funding.