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Eye on Boise: Otter wants technical-ed boost to address labor shortage

A looming labor shortage and long waiting lists are behind Gov. Butch Otter’s proposal for a big boost to the state’s professional-technical education programs.

From 2015 to 2025, Idaho’s workforce is expected to grow by about 55,000 people, according to state Professional-Technical Education Director Dwight Johnson. But the number of jobs is expected to grow by 118,000.

“Idaho faces a workforce gap of approximately 63,000 jobs by 2025,” Johnson said.

Last year, professional and technical education programs in Idaho graduated 542 students, with 100 percent job placement. There are more than 850 students now on waiting lists.

There are more than 30 such programs, in health care, information technology, manufacturing and transportation, offered through community and technical colleges, Lewis-Clark State College and Idaho State University.

“Employers are struggling to find qualified workers with the right skills to fill those jobs,” Johnson said. “We have a skills mismatch in certain occupations.”

Otter wants a significant increase – 10.4 percent, or $5.9 million – in state funding for professional-technical education next year. The biggest piece of that is a $3.8 million push to expand capacity for programs in targeted fields, including adding the equivalent of 38 new state employees.

The expansion would mean an additional 410 students graduating from professional-technical programs each year – a 76 percent increase – and a 48 percent reduction in current student waiting lists, Johnson said.

It’s aimed at building Idaho’s “talent pipeline,” he said. “We need more Ph.D.s, master’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees, but we also need more technical degrees and certifications.”

Deadline brings bills

A long list of newly introduced bills was read across the desk in the House on Friday, including an array of personal bills sponsored by individual lawmakers; Friday was the deadline for those in the House. Among those introduced:

Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, introduced his minimum wage increase measure as a personal bill, after the Senate State Affairs Committee refused to grant it an introductory hearing.

Reps. Ron Nate and Heather Scott introduced their two versions of permitless concealed carry gun legislation as personal bills. Asked why, Nate, R-Rexburg, said, “We approached the House committee chair, and he said no.” That meant no introductory hearing would be scheduled in the House committee; the only way the bills would be introduced this year was as personal bills.

Reps. John McCrostie, D-Boise, and Erpelding introduced a personal bill to repeal the Idaho Constitution’s ban on same-sex marriage, which has been overturned in court.

Nate introduced personal bills to repeal the state requirement for a specific standardized test for students, making it optional for school districts, and to repeal the state health insurance exchange in favor of reverting “back to the federal Affordable Care Act.” He said both were campaign promises he’s trying to keep. “I’m going to work my hardest to get them moving along the process,” he said.

How Gov. Otter’s health care plan would work

Idaho Health and Welfare Director Dick Armstrong briefed lawmakers last week on how Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed Primary Care Access program would work. It would serve the “gap” population, those who make too little to qualify for subsidized health insurance through the state insurance exchange, but too much to qualify for Medicaid.

Patients would be assigned to a clinic, where they’d get a detailed health assessment and a plan for addressing their health care needs. They’d receive services ranging from preventive care to in-clinic behavioral health treatment.

Though PCAP wouldn’t be insurance – patients would pay fees for services on a sliding scale, based on their income – it would include deep discounts on an array of medications, Armstrong said. Among examples: A diabetes medication with an average wholesale price of $484 would cost a patient $17.16; an asthma inhaler priced at $85.39 would cost the patient $17.08. And patients would be directed to any cheaper alternatives that are available, including $4 prescriptions at Wal-Mart.

Patients will have to be responsible for complying with their care plans; if they don’t, they could be kicked out of the program.

“It’s a change of philosophy,” Armstrong said. “It’s a very different delivery model than what we’ve all kind of been used to for the last 50 years. The last 50 years has been you’ve got to go find the provider if you want a service.”

Under the “patient-centered medical home” model that would be used in Otter’s plan, a team of providers would help alert the patient to what they need to do to stay healthy – and where to go when they need care.

“There is an education process that has to take place here, plain and simple,” Armstrong said, “and we will have to work on that, because this is a change of culture – and that’s what we’re after.”

Currently, Idaho’s Catastrophic Health Care fund often receives hospital bills that run $100,000-plus for conditions that could have been alleviated inexpensively much earlier. “We spend all this money at the wrong end of the spectrum,” Armstrong said.