State Policies Bolster Rural Healthcare Workforce

July 05, 2024 | Chikamso Chukwu

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Workforce shortages are a significant challenge across both the public health and healthcare sectors. These shortages are especially acute in rural communities and within behavioral and oral health. The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) projects a shortage of approximately 70,000 mental health counselors, 338,000 registered nurses, and 68,000 primary care physicians over the next 12 years.

HRSA is working to address the shortages via programs that support healthcare provider training and placement. Additionally, state policymakers are tackling this issue through legislation aimed at bolstering recruitment, training, and retention of healthcare professionals and widening the scope of practice for critical professions.

HRSA Leadership in Building Healthcare Workforce Pipelines

HRSA manages many grant programs that build and diversify the healthcare workforce, as well as connect skilled healthcare providers to the people who need it most. HRSA’s Bureau of Health Workforce provides financial assistance to healthcare providers through loan repayment programs for licensed healthcare professionals in return for practicing in an underserved community for a set amount of time, and scholarship programs for students in health programs and professions to cover educational expenses. Some of these programs include:

State Legislation Related to Grant, Scholarship, and Loan Repayment Programs

Public health agencies also play a significant role in healthcare workforce development through state/territorial Primary Care Offices (PCOs), which receive direct investment from HRSA to track health care professional shortage areas in their jurisdiction and administer HRSA workforce programs to address those shortages. In addition, PCOs and other state agencies can fund and administer their own, state-based scholarship and loan repayment programs. In recent years, several states enacted legislation that increases funding or expands the list of eligible providers who can participate in these programs, described in more detail below.

In 2023, at least three states enacted laws expanding financing programs for health professions supporting underserved communities. California enacted AB 118, which adds pharmacists to the list of professions eligible to participate in the California Reproductive Health Service Corps to help underserved areas. Illinois enacted SB 1590, which made chiropractic students eligible for the Underserved Healthcare Provider Workforce Program. Washington enacted SB 5582 which expands educational opportunities for nursing students, including a pathway program for home care aides to become a Licensed Practical Nurse. In 2024, Washington enacted HB 1946 expanding eligibility for the Washington Health Corps Program to include behavioral health professionals serving in underserved areas.

Workforce Planning and Diversification

Analyzing the healthcare workforce is important for jurisdictions to understand potential shortages and how to address them in the future. In the last few years, states have enacted legislation that looks at shortages in specific segments of the healthcare workforce. California enacted AB 1311 in 2023, requiring an assessment of state university and community college health education programs including how these programs fulfill healthcare workforce shortages and graduate job placement.

This year, Virginia enacted HB 1499, which allows the Virginia Health Workforce Development Authority to partner with other state agencies to manage and analyze health workforce data and authorizes them to request data to reach a broader understanding of the state and address longstanding shortages. Washington enacted SB 6286 directing the University of Washington to study and report on the workforce shortages in the state’s anesthesia care, the current training pipeline, and barriers to entering the profession.

Strategies to mitigate healthcare workforce gaps include expanding pipelines for various healthcare professions and creating programs or licenses that allow paraprofessionals to practice under supervision. For example, Washington enacted HB 2247 that created credentials for licensed psychological associates (e.g., students in training and practicing under supervision of a licensed psychologist). Wisconsin enacted SB 689, which allows for the licensure of dental therapists who would practice in designated dental shortage areas and under the supervision of a licensed dentist.

Medicaid State Plan Amendments Related to Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs)

Legislation is not the only policy lever available to expand access to care. State Medicaid agencies can amend their program’s services, provider types, or eligibility standards by submitting a State Plans Amendment (SPA) for approval by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). In May 2024, California received CMS approval to allow Associate Professional Clinical Counselors, who practice under the supervision of a licensed billable practitioner, as a covered service within Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs), rural health clinics, and Tribal FQHCs to expand access for Medicaid members to behavioral health providers. In the same month, Illinois received approval for an SPA to increase FQHC payment rates for behavioral health encounters in FQHCs and RHCs. Louisiana amended their state plan to provide a recruitment bonus or monthly retention bonuses to nurses participating in a Home Health Program, made possible under the American Rescue Plan Act.

Having a robust healthcare workforce requires increasing the number of providers, building diverse and skilled workforces, and connecting professionals to the communities who need them most. States are committed to addressing current healthcare workforce shortages while preparing for the future needs of the workforce. ASTHO will continue to track legislation to address health workforce shortages, as well as offer programmatic support to PCOs and state/territorial health departments in their critical work to ensure access to care.

The development of this product is supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under grant number 2 UD3OA22890-13-00. Information, content, and conclusions will be those of the author and should not be construed as the official position or policy of, nor should any endorsements be inferred by HRSA, HHS, or the U.S. Government.