Local leaders: As senior population grows, more health workers will be needed

photo by: Dylan Lysen

Local elected officials listen to questions about issues that affect senior residents in Douglas County during a community forum on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019. From right to left: state Sen. Marci Francisco, state Reps. Mike Amyx, Jim Karleskint, and Eileen Horn and Douglas County Commissioners Nancy Thellman and Patrick Kelly.

As the number of seniors in Douglas County grows, a shortage of health care providers in the local workforce will become a larger issue.

To help address that issue, the state needs to find ways to make sure health care providers earn a living wage, Democratic state Sen. Marci Francisco said during a community forum Thursday.

“(Providing a living) wage will make it possible for people to feel that the job they have is one that they and their family can prosper in,” she said.

Along with Francisco, Democratic Reps. Mike Amyx and Eileen Horn and Republican Rep. Jim Karleskint answered many questions regarding legislative issues that affect seniors in the county. While several topics came up, the questions largely focused on how the state and the local community can help address health care issues for seniors.

Douglas County Commissioners Nancy Thellman and Patrick Kelly also participated in the forum.

While the state lawmakers said they understand there is a shortage of workers in the health care industry, they said that industry is not alone. Throughout the state, employers are struggling to hire and retain employees, Francisco said.

“We don’t have enough nurses,” she said. “We know we need to have those health care providers, but we would also like to have bus drivers.”

Karleskint said there are ways to help address the issue outside of the statehouse, and that’s through education. He cited the career and technical education opportunities offered through state high schools, including certified nursing assistant programs.

“A lot of people I know who went through that are in the health care business now,” he said, noting that the state provides funding for those programs. “That’s something we have to continue. There have been threats to cut it back … and we need to fight to keep that in place to get young people into the health care business.”

As the director for the Lawrence College and Career Center, Kelly said he has seen firsthand that kind of problem-solving put to use. He said the center is currently training 64 students to become certified nursing assistants. He noted this school year is the first time the Lawrence school district was able to offer that program free of charge to the students, who previously had to pay a $500 fee to enroll.

However, more still needs to be done to make sure those students stay in the field after they enter it, he said, because it currently does not pay well enough to be a long-term career.

“I’m excited that we are getting them out into the workforce, but we have to get their pay rates up,” Kelly said. “They are looking to get in and out of that as quickly as possible so they can earn enough to live.”

Thellman said another local effort to address health care issues is the county’s community health plan, which is a formal five-year collaborative plan for the county and the four municipalities within it. She said the plan has identified health inequities in the community, including how residents on the east side of Lawrence have a shorter life expectancy than those who live on the west side.

To address those issues, the county and the local cities are working with local community organizations and providing some funding to help them do their jobs and increase community access to health care.

“I think it’s greatly improved in the last few years,” she said. “We’ve worked hard to get our agencies to work together to collaborate well and to find ways to improve access.”

At the state level, though, not enough is being done, Francisco said.

“One thing the Legislature has not done well yet is support public health throughout the state,” she said.

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