$55.5 million in grants going to health workers

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WASHINGTON -- The Department of Health and Human Services has awarded $55.5 million in grants to help bolster a health care workforce that is stretched thin and possibly facing greater strain under the Affordable Care Act.

In a statement, the department said the new round of funding this month would increase the size of the medical workforce in "a wide spectrum" of fields.

"From diversity to dentistry, all are critical to achieving a skilled workforce now and in the future," said Mary Wakefield, administrator for the department's Health Resources and Services Administration.

About 82 percent of the money will go toward nursing to provide low-interest educational loans, pay for advanced training, and encourage racial and ethnic minorities to enter the profession.

A smaller portion of the funding will help address dental-workforce needs, support residency programs in preventive medicine and train doctoral-level psychologists, among other forms of assistance.

Experts concur that the medical workforce is strained, but not all agree that the health care law will exacerbate the problem.

The Global Institute of Emerging Healthcare Practices said in a report this year that "most studies before passage of the Affordable Care Act projected shortages of at least 124,000 physicians and 500,000 nurses by 2025." Similarly, an analysis from the Association of American Medical Colleges estimated a shortfall of 90,000 doctors within 10 years.

Both groups said the health care law would place more pressure on the medical workforce. But other experts have argued against the notion that the act requires drastic growth in the number of doctors.

Scott Gottlieb and Ezekiel Emanuel, who were senior health officials with the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, respectively, said in a recent New York Times op-ed that expanding the scope of services allowed from non-physician health care professionals -- such as nurses and dieticians -- could reduce the need for growth in the medical workforce.

"Instead of building more medical schools and expanding our doctor pool, we should focus on increasing the productivity of existing physicians and other healthcare workers," the editorial said.

The HHS grants will help train existing medical staff so they can expand their roles, falling in line with the recommendations from Mr. Gottlieb and Mr. Emanuel, who also are doctors.


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