Skip to main content

Auburn Sentinel

Becerra, Bera Discuss Healthcare Worker Shortage at Rio Americano

Apr 23, 2024 03:12PM ● By Adam Abolfazli, photos by Rami Al Mufti
U.S. Rep. Ami Bera, left, and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra speak to students April 8 at Rio Americano High School.

SACRAMENTO REGION, CA (MPG) - As the nation faces a critical shortage of medical professionals, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and U.S. Rep. Ami Bera met with local educators and students in Rio Americano High School’s medical careers program on April 8 to hear concerns and promote medical education, especially at the secondary level.

The event, “Training the Next Generation of Health Workers,” welcomed Becerra and Bera, a Democrat whose district includes Rio Americano in Sacramento County. San Juan Unified School District Superintendent Melissa Bassanelli and school board President Pam Costa were also in attendance.

The visit’s purpose was to showcase “how San Juan Unified is leading in developing a healthcare workforce and to discuss the importance of ongoing federal support for similar programs,” San Juan Unified communications director Raj Rai said.

Becerra, a Sacramento native whose wife is a doctor still practicing in the area, called attention to the industry shortage and discussed Biden administration programs to ease the crunch, including supporting career education.

“At HHS, we can add some value and worth with you as you try to create that pathway for young Americans to become our future leaders,” Becerra said. “There is no shortage of opportunity, so when you see an opportunity to support a program that is bringing young folks in quickly (to medical careers), you want to be here.”

Facing the shortage

The country will face a shortage of 195,400 nurses by 2031, according to estimates by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Openings for home health aides and personal health aides will increase 37 percent by 2028.

According to projections published last month by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the U.S. will face a physician shortage of up to 86,000 doctors by 2036.

Across the country, Health and Human Services and hospitals are trying to fill medical residency slots, including at 1,400 federally-certified health service clinics.

“More and more, people are finding access through community health clinics,” Becerra said.

The American Rescue Plan, passed in 2021, contained funding for 1,000 additional residency slots.

More than $100 billion in federal funding has been approved under President Joe Biden to grow the healthcare workforce. The administration also wants to subsidize universities to help retain faculty members and increase the salaries of nursing professors so that they don’t leave the classroom for more lucrative hospital jobs. 

Two weeks ago, the Biden administration announced additional investments in primary care medical education and more residency programs in rural areas.

Becerra also touted Health and Human Services’ scholarship and loan forgiveness programs that help students get through college if they agree to work for a number of years in underserved communities. His son-in-law, now a pediatrician, was given a full four-year scholarship through the initiative.

Starting in high school

However, on the local level, the healthcare industry has emphasized high school education to kickstart medical training.

“This is such a great program because we’re exposing you to career pathways in healthcare,” Bera, a doctor, said. “We’re creating a workforce that’s going to take care of me when I’m older. There’s nothing more important than investing in our young people. Our legacy is the next generation, the lives that we touch.”

Principal Cliff Kelly and medical careers program teacher London Mackey promoted the success of the medical program, which boasts a 95% pass rate on the medical assistant board exam and allows students to become certified medical assistants when they graduate high school, often getting medical assistant jobs that pay $25 an hour.

Xavier Becerra Ami Bera Rio Americano High School

 Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and US Rep. Ami Bera visit Rio Americano High School Medical Careers Program on April 8.

Medical assistants “complete administrative and clinical tasks, such as scheduling appointments and taking patients’ vital signs,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Students also learn to draw blood and give injections. 

Becerra noted the benefit of the well-paying job for students who continue studying medical careers in college.

Seniors in the program spend half their school day at a hospital participating in an externship that culminates in receiving a medical assisting license and college credit.

The importance of the medical program is to “give students hands-on training that will enable them to better transition into college or medical careers,” Kelly said.

Recently, the big four Sacramento health systems came together to identify and highlight such programs, including the medical careers pathway at Rio Americano and health science academies in Natomas and Rancho Cordova. They view career education as a way to fill gaps in hiring medical assistants, nurses, X-ray techs and a variety of other medical professions.

“We invest in our students’ needs in ways that will serve them far beyond graduation,” Bassanelli said. “That success relies on the long-term support and investments of policymakers and key partners like those here today.”

About the Rio Americano Visit

After visiting Rio Americano High School, Becerra said that “there is a real reason to hope for our future.”

On April 5, crews could be seen cleaning buildings and mowing the lawns in preparation for the secretary’s high-profile visit. The Secret Service was also present over the weekend conducting a sweep of the campus. Local news outlets attended the event, too.

Medical careers program teacher Mackey welcomed Becerra and Bera to the med wing to speak directly with her sophomore students.

“I love having speakers that the students can interact with,” Mackey said.

Rio Americano High School’s medical careers students shared their interest in pursuing careers in radiology, pediatrics and sports medicine, among others.

“It’s good not just for Rio but for all pathways,” Principal Kelly said. “It’s the first time we’ve ever had a cabinet-level person show up to a San Juan school.”

The medical facility at Rio Americano was originally funded by federal money that trickled down to San Juan and by bond measures local voters approved.

“We have a number of programs where we help establish the pipeline,” Becerra said of his department’s work with youth. “We provide a dollar to the state of California. The state then gets it down to school districts, and then the schools get to use it the way they think best.”

In their meeting with first-period med program students, Becerra and Bera spoke about the growing importance of mental health services, including increased funding for 988, the new national number for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline for mental health services.

The secretary, asked by a med student what he saw as the most important up-and-coming developments in federal healthcare, told students about the Advanced Research Project Agency for Health (ARPA-H), whose goal is to “catalyze the next generation of treatments to improve the health of all Americans.”

Becerra spent time in Southern California as part of his latest Latino health tour before coming to Sacramento. 

Becerra was born and raised in Sacramento and graduated from nearby McClatchy High School.

He also served in Congress, representing Los Angeles, for more than two decades, and as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus at the end of his congressional tenure.

As Health and Human Services secretary, Becerra has helped protect and expand the Affordable Care Act and assist in overseeing the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At HHS, we want in,” Becerra said.

Becerra joked that “as much as there is conflict and controversy going on throughout the world, when a CK McClatchy Lion will come visit Rio Americano, things are pretty good in the world.”

Adam Abolfazli is a junior at Rio Americano High School and an editor of the Rio Mirada student newspaper. He plans to study journalism in college.