Gov. Jared Polis and a bipartisan group of state lawmakers on Monday unveiled legislation that aims to address the state’s critical shortage of health care workers by creating capacity to train thousands of new physicians, nurses, veterinarians and other health care professionals.
The bill would allocate about $247 million to renovate or construct new facilities at four state colleges and universities, including Metropolitan State University of Denver, which is looking to expand enrollment capacity in health-related programs by 25%.
The push to train more students comes as health care-industry experts predict dire workforce shortages, including the need for more than 3 million health care workers in the U.S. over the next five years.
Creating more capacity to train a wide range of health-industry students across the state will alleviate particularly acute needs in rural and underserved communities, the bill’s supporters said. Fifty-nine of Colorado’s 64 counties contain regions that are federally designated as health-professional shortage areas in primary care.
“We need health care workers across the board,” Polis said during a news conference near the site of MSU Denver’s future Health Institute Tower on the Auraria Campus in downtown Denver.
“This will be an upgrade to our state,” he said of the projects, noting they would be paid for through certificates of participation — a financial instrument the state uses in lieu of bonds or other long-term debt to finance construction projects.
A collaboration of 10 academic departments focused on health and wellness:
Chemistry and Biochemistry
Human Performance and Sport
Human Services and Counseling
Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences
About $50 million of the bill’s $247 million in funding would help pay for MSU Denver’s Health Institute Tower. The 70,000-square-foot facility would serve 10 health-related academic departments that are training students for careers in a wide range of in-demand fields, including nursing, nutrition, behavioral health, physical therapy and social work.
“The Health Institute’s focus on an integrated, whole-person approach to health is bolstered by the diverse cohort of students who will meet the needs of communities in Colorado’s Front Range and across the state,” said MSU Denver President Janine Davidson, Ph.D. “This project will allow MSU Denver to educate even more future health care workers, filling important workforce gaps in our state.”
In addition to MSU Denver’s Health Institute Tower Project, the proposed infrastructure bill would fund health-education projects at two other state universities and a community college:
The University of Northern Colorado, in Greeley, is developing its College of Osteopathic Medicine, which would be the third medical school in a state that is meeting just 34.6% of its need for physicians, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration.
The Veterinary Health Education Complex at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, aims to increase veterinary-student enrollment at CSU by 20% to alleviate a severe workforce shortage in that profession. A survey by the CSU Animal-Human Policy Center found that 70% of vet practices must turn away animals every week because they can’t fit them into their schedules.
Renovations at Trinidad State College’s Valley Campus in Alamosa will allow the community college in southern Colorado to expand by up to 50% programs that train nurses, medical technicians, dental assistants and other allied health care professionals.
Meanwhile, the tower project at MSU Denver is part of a larger effort to consolidate the University’s Health Institute programs under one roof, while providing state-of-the-art facilities, technology and instruction that will best prepare students for the modern health care workforce.
Construction is already underway on health-simulation laboratories that will allow MSU Denver to train more nurses and other health professionals in spaces that mirror advanced clinical environments.
Colorado is among the worst-situated states in the fields of mental health and nursing, according to a 2021 analysis from human-resources consulting firm Mercer. For example, the firm projects that Colorado will soon be short more than 10,000 nurses, third-worst in the country. Meanwhile, more than 2.5 million Coloradans live in an area with a shortage of behavioral-health workers, according to the state Department of Health Policy and Financing.
MSU Denver’s new six-story health-education building will be next to the Simulation Labs, which are under construction in the Auraria Campus’ West Classroom building. The estimated cost for the tower project is $65 million.
In addition to state funding to help finance it, MSU Denver is pursuing ambitious fundraising goals. The Health Institute has already attracted millions of dollars in private donations, with more expected in the near future.
“This funding will give students access to a modern facility where they will learn with the equipment they will need to provide quality patient care for years to come,” Davidson said.
If the Certificate of Participation legislation passes, MSU Denver could begin planning for construction of the new building as early as this summer.