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Three Juneau health-care institutions have agreed to help finance the education of much-needed nursing assistants at the University of Alaska Southeast.
"The problem has been that many of the people who most need this training have been least able to afford it," said Gary Bowen, UAS associate dean of faculty.
Nursing assistants help feed and bathe hospital patients or nursing home residents, or people who need care at home. They cannot give medications or assess patients.
Nursing assistants are in demand now and local institutions forecast a growing need as Bartlett Regional Hospital starts to use them, St. Ann's Care Center adds more beds and a growing elderly population hires the assistants at home.
Health-care institutions in Juneau will need about 60 new nursing assistants next year, including filling vacancies from turnover, said Marianne Stillner, who teaches nursing at UAS. The Juneau campus educated 11 nursing assistant students in each of the past two semesters, she said.
Officials from Bartlett, St. Ann's and the Juneau Pioneers' Home agreed last week to pay most of some students' tuition for the short course that leads to state certification as a nursing assistant. In exchange, the students would work for a year at the funding institution.
Bartlett also has agreed to pay for a part-time instructor at UAS to handle more students.
The scholarships are likely to be about $1,000 of the $1,200 tuition, the institutions' officials said.
"It's not much for us. It's a huge leap for them," said Sheryl Washburn, patient care administrator at Bartlett.
Students also would have to pay about $60 for their books and $210 to take the test for certification. The jobs tend to pay $10.75 to $13.50 an hour, according to the state Department of Labor.
Meanwhile, Juneau-Douglas High School will pay for five students to take the UAS course this spring, using school district funds and a federal vocational education grant.
Heather Klepinger, a high school junior, wants to earn an associate's degree and become a registered nurse. The nursing assistant program at UAS "would be a good jump start," she said, and a good way to see if she wants nursing as a career.
"I was funded through the high school," Klepinger said. "That made it easy for me to decide without having to pay for a lot of schooling."
The Juneau Pioneers' Home intends to offer scholarships to people who now work there as uncertified aides, said administrator Rosemary Gute-Gruening.
"When you invest in someone, you want to have a pretty good idea you'd want them working for you," she said.
St. Ann's Care Center hired about 17 certified nursing assistants last year, said Director of Nursing Services Susan Snippen. It employs about 40 full-time nursing assistants.
"They certainly are at the very heart of what we do in long-term care and elder care, so we staff quite a few," she said.
But St. Ann's will need about 10 more nursing assistants when its new building, now under construction near Bartlett, will add 11 assisted-living beds and an adult day-care center, Snippen said.
For Bartlett, hiring nursing assistants is one way to deal with a shortage of registered nurses. There are nine nursing vacancies now in a staff of about 132 registered nurses and seven licensed practical nurses. Nursing jobs sometimes go unfilled for six months or more, Washburn said.
"Because of the nursing shortage, which is a very real and probably long-term concern, we are looking at alternatives to an all-licensed staff," Washburn said.
Using nursing assistants would free up licensed staff to provide the care required by state law of registered nurses and licensed practical nurses, she said.
Bartlett also hopes creating more nursing assistants will lead to more nurses down the road, especially now that UAS offers courses leading to nursing degrees through Weber State University of Utah and, in a few years, through the University of Alaska Anchorage.
The nursing assistant certification is sometimes a first step in a nurse's education, which is another reason for the turnover among nursing assistants. Stillner of UAS said at least half her fall nursing assistant students want to be nurses.
Out of 13,200 health-care positions in Alaska, there were 6,200 hires last year because of turnover, said Laraine Derr, president of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. There were 1,373 new hires among 2,325 nursing assistant jobs statewide.
Another 5,400 health-care jobs are projected in Alaska by 2008, Derr said.
"We're living longer. We're living better. Technology is keeping us alive longer. And we're getting better care at home," Derr said. "All of that increases the need for more health-care workers."
Eric Fry can be reached at email@example.com.