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HHS Announces $1 Billion in Grants to Expand Workforce

By Nellie Bristol, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor

November 14, 2011 -- Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius recently did her bit to help President Obama's job-creation effort by announcing $1 billion in grants funded by the health care law that will help add health care workers across the country.

Applications are open to health care providers, local governments, community-based organizations and payers and HHS will give preference to projects that "rapidly hire, train and deploy health care workers," according to a department press release.

Three-year grants, to be issued in March, would range from $1 million to $30 million each. Projects will be evaluated and monitored for improvements to care and cost savings. The project, called The Health Care Innovation Challenge, could allow experimentation with more non-physician care arrangements involving, for example, community health workers and volunteers.

Once the health care law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152) takes full effect in 2014, workforce shortages are expected to be intensified as an additional 32 million Americans receive coverage by 2019.

The grant program aims for a trifecta of Obama Administration goals: increased jobs, health care service delivery improvements and lower health care costs.

The overhaul law was criticized for not including concrete methods for reducing federal costs for health care programs. Instead, it created the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation to oversee and fund pilot and demonstration projects designed to improve care and save money.

The emphasis is on finding successful programs, proving their worth and expanding them as appropriate.

The focus on speed is evident in the current proposal: applicants must be operational or capable of rapid expansion within six months after the grant is awarded. Sebelius contrasted the approach with previous demonstration projects under previous administrations that took three-to-five years to play out before results could be analyzed.

Grants will focus on efforts that deploy workers in new ways. HHS officials mentioned as examples outreach efforts, care coordination and health information technology. Asked if creating more health care workers wouldn't run the risk of increasing costs, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Donald Berwick insisted the program is "adding the kinds of jobs that add value to health care."

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