The mammoth $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act was passed in March of this year in part to help Americans recover from the impact of COVID-19, but a large swathe of its funding was meant to help make communities stronger for the future.
Now, after months of applications and planning, a coalition of Southeast Texas colleges and medical providers are stepping up to pitch their plan for millions of dollars in federal stimulus that they say could change the region’s economic landscape.
The American Rescue Plan set aside $1 billion in funding for the Build Back Better Challenge — a program managed by the U.S. Economic Development Association with the mission to award 20 to 30 coalitions up to $100 million in grant money for economic projects.
The EDA announced the successful applicants at the end of October, compiling a list of 529 applicants from across the country with plans to improve their communities, including a coalition led by Lamar State College Port Arthur.
Ben Stafford, dean of workforce development at LSCPA and chief author of the application, said LSCPA gathered the support of other schools and local health care providers to tackle the growing regional shortage of nurses and support staff at area medical facilities.
“For us, it was the perfect kind of issue that could be addressed by a program of this size,” Stafford said. “We can easily show we were adversely affected by COVID-19. We have a high population of unemployed in this area and a major employer system with a desperate need of employees.”
The proposed plan to strengthen the education and recruitment of medical professionals in Southeast Texas would involve LSCPA, Lamar State College Orange, Lamar University and the four major hospital systems covering Jefferson, Orange, Chambers, Jasper, Newton and Hardin counties.
While the actual work will likely take millions of dollars and years of effort, Stafford said the coalition’s argument is pretty cut and dry.
Based on data from job applications and health surveys, Southeast Texas has 10% fewer nurses than it needs in urban areas and a 30% shortage in rural areas.
That’s an average gap of around 700 employees across the area’s nine primary health providers, which Stafford said costs some health systems more than $1 million a month in contractual employment costs to partially fill the gap.
There could be any number of factors and barriers that have helped create that deficit, but Stafford and the coalition have outlined one clear problem limiting colleges from graduating qualified nurses.
Due to a simple lack of space and infrastructure, area colleges turn away an average of 28% of all applicants for licensed vocational nursing programs and 64% of applicants seeking a Bachelor’s Degree of Nursing.
If selected through the process, the initial plan outlines ways to increase the number of spots for students by 200, while investing in improved learning and hands-on training spaces in local hospitals that will allow those newly-minted health professionals to further their careers in Southeast Texas.
Local and educational health leaders now have to see if the EDA agrees that their problem and solution meet the goals of the Build Back Better Regional Challenge.
“Designed to advance and accelerate an equitable economic recovery, create good-paying jobs, and build resilient regions across the country, the $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge will invest in locally developed projects that depend on American ingenuity and American workers, and is one of the ways the Biden Administration will continue to enhance U.S. competitiveness on the global stage,” Assistant Secretary for Economic Development Alejandra Castillo said in a statement.
The scope of the proposed projects are pretty simple: Find a way that a region has been impacted by COVID-19 in one of the program’s established categories, and propose a plan with a group of stakeholders that could reverse those problems and prevent them from happening in the future.
But since the actual mechanics of those plans likely will be heroic undertakings, the challenge has been split into two phases.
Some 60 coalitions will receive up to $500,000 during the first phase of the challenge, which they will then use to establish what the EDA is calling “growth clusters” to improve local economics and pave the way for the potential region-changing project they proposed.
Of those 50 to 60 coalitions, 20 to 30 will receive $25 million to $100 million based on the merits and impact of the plan.
Municipal governments, tribal councils, community groups and a myriad of other coalitions have all made similar cases in their applications.
While the Southeast Texas plan may have a one of 529 chance to win approval now, Stafford said the way the program is structured gives him hope that local leaders can prove their merit.
“If we win approval in the first phase, we suddenly have a 50% to be selected in the second phase and potentially change the local health landscape,” Stafford said.
Written by Jacob Dick