Kaweah Health builds program to ease nursing shortage

Kaweah Health partners with private university Unitek Learning to create a program for hospital employees to become RNs in exchange for a three-year contract after earning their degree

VISALIA – Kaweah Health is not only offering to pay for employees to get a nursing degree it’s now helping to build a new program to address the area’s nursing shortage.

Kaweah Health, Tulare County’s largest hospital, recently announced a partnership with Unitek Learning, a private university specializing in healthcare and nursing, to create a program for employees to further their education and a pipeline to find and retain nurses to work at the hospital. The program would allow any Kaweah Health employee to begin their journey toward becoming a registered nurse as early as January 2023 at a discounted rate. Unitek is in the process of seeking approval from the Board of Registered Nurses (BRN) Licensing Committee for this partnership program.

“This new partnership will be an excellent opportunity for Kaweah Health employees to continue their education and to help address the nursing shortage at both Kaweah Health and across the state,” Dianne Cox, chief human resources officer at Kaweah Health, said.

The customized program will blend virtual and on site learning to produce skilled and educated graduates who are ready to enter the field. Kaweah Health’s goal is to graduate 50 registered nurses (RN) each year.

Unitek CEO Janis Paulson said their goal is to create career ready professionals desperately needed to help transform the healthcare workforce. 

“This partnership is a step forward for Unitek as we continue to educate future healthcare professionals,” Paulson said.

The program will also be affordable for those interested in becoming RNs by offering a specialized tuition rate for Kaweah Health employees. Jamie Morales, director of talent inquisition with Kaweah Health, said the hospital has struggled to retain local people once they have obtained their degrees and completed training.  She said Kaweah Health currently has over 200 open RN positions. RNs in the Bay Area and Southern California are paid higher wages than their Valley counterparts. In order to incentivize graduates to stay, Morales said Kaweah will subsidize the tuition for employees who sign a three-year contract to work at the hospital after earning their degree.

“[The service contract] would be something that would be hardwired into the process, an employee would have to agree to that in order to be considered,” Morales said. “Because obviously, the intent is that we invest in our employees, and we want them to stay in our community.”

Kaweah Health employees will begin the program in January 2023. The first class will be individuals who have already completed their prerequisites so they will only need to complete Unitek’s advanced placement course, streamlining the course list from a three-year program down to a two-year program. All students will graduate with a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). The program will also offer additional transitional course options for employees wanting to transition from a licensed vocational nurse (LVN) to an RN with a BSN.

“This program is open to employees across the organization, whether they’re in food services, or environmental services, or in more of a patient care, clinical role,” Morales said. “It really will be open to all staff, assuming that they have this desire, and this goal to become an RN.”

Eventually, Kaweah Health hopes to open the program up to individuals in the community.

Rural areas across the nation have struggled with nursing shortages for years and they were only made worse by the pandemic. Last year alone, Kaweah Health’s employment expenses were an estimated $454.1 million which exceeded the budget by nearly $64 million. Next year, employment costs are projected to increase an additional $2.7 million. These dramatic increases in labor costs have occurred in many respects due to a severe shortage of healthcare workers, requiring Kaweah Health to fill these vacancies with contract labor, overtime and asking its existing employees to work extra shifts. The cost of contract labor, most notably travel nurses, has skyrocketed in recent years. According to the American Hospital Association, travel nurse staffing agencies increased their hourly rates by 213% between January 2019 and January 2022.

Morales said the hospital has already partnered with a few outside programs such as College of Sequoias (COS), but it is still not enough. Kaweah helped fund an expansion of COS’s program, which created 10 addition seats in the LVN to RN programs, according to Morales. Kaweah also sponsors employees to participate in an additional COS program that is geared toward those who wish to further their education while continuing to work in health care year round.

Kaweah has several employees who are interested in furthering their education, but they simply have not been accepted into a program. Many schools do not have enough staff to take on a larger class, forcing many to wait longer while the need for nurses continues to grow. 

Applicants must first go through a process within the hospital to be chosen for the program. Once the class is full, they will have to apply to Unitek like any other school and pay the remaining cost of tuition. Morales said specifics are still being worked out. 

The partnership with Kaweah Health would be Unitek’s fifth BSN nursing program in California. Unitek Learning has eight campuses, seven of which are in California, with the nearest campus located in Bakersfield. Chief academic officer Abdel Yosef said the addition of the Kaweah Health cohort is evidence of the growing need for additional programs to address the nursing shortage in medically-underserved areas such as Tulare County. 

Yosef said Unitek Learning has submitted a thorough and compelling application to the Board of Registered Nurses (BRN). He said he is hopeful the BRN will take into consideration that the nursing shortage is not improving and that the state needs as many avenues for healthcare workers to obtain nursing degrees as possible. The Board of Registered Nurses is expected to review Unitek’s application at its October 2022 meeting.

“We have been working with the California [Board of Registered Nursing] for many years and they have been a great partner’” Yosef said. “In the past they have supported our requests to add cohorts and locations based on the needs of the community we are positioned to serve.”

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