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Delaware launches CNA tuition program for state facilities

Katie Tabeling
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Delaware Nurse at Bayhealth, 2023. | PHOTO COURTESY OF BAYHEALTH

With many nurses leaving health care, the state has announced it would cover the whole tuition for candidates in a new certified nursing assistant (CNA) program who commit to working in a state facility. | PHOTO COURTESY OF BAYHEALTH

DOVER — Delaware has launched a tuition incentive program to attract certified nursing assistants (CNAs) in the state, covering tuition up to $3,000 per student to increase the workforce for state-run facilities.

The Delaware Department of Human Resources has contracted with Bear Professional Institute, the Delaware Skills Center, and Sussex County Vocational Technical School District to train CNAs. Each agency is committed to at least a six-week training course, with at least four courses over the year. Tuition per student ranges between $2,450 to $2,690, according to state procurement files.

Those three agencies are contracted for a year, ending Nov. 30, 2024, with the option of three annual extensions.

In exchange for free tuition, CNAs who complete the program are required to work for one of Delaware’s four institutions: the Delaware Psychiatric Center, the Delaware Hospital for the Chronically Ill, the Delaware Veterans Home and Stockley Center.

Delaware Human Resources Secretary Claire DeMatteis said that the CNA vacancy rate at the four institutions range between 40% and 50%.

“It puts additional pressure on licensed and registered nurses in these facilities,” DeMatteis said in a prepared statement. “With this new tuition incentive, along with signing and retention incentives for all types of nurses in our state facilities, we are investing significant state resources for the health and well-being of some of our most vulnerable residents.”

CNAs are often entry-level positions in the health care sector that help patients eat, drink, and stay comfortable, as well as taking vitals and other monitoring duties. Once certified, CNAs could receive a state salary of $34,000. According to the state labor data, the mean salary for a nursing assistant is $36,670.

These positions could also be a gateway to become a licensed practical nurse or registered nurse, both roles that handle more medical and primary care. Delaware Nurses Association Executive Director Christoper Otto said that his organization supports the state’s program as a way to alleviate CNA shortages in the state’s health care facilities, since when those roles aren’t filled, nurses have to pick up more duties.

“The ‘pressure’ that Secretary DeMatteis references being added to LPNs and RNs as a result of CNA shortages is something the Delaware Nurses Association is keenly clued into. This ‘pressure’ is forcing LPNs and RNs to practice below their level of licensure and practice, which takes away vital time that could be used for assessments, education, care coordination, family engagement, and more,” Otto told the Delaware Business Times. “The Delaware Nurses Association advocates for a robust, multidisciplinary health care workforce in which all professionals are contributing to their full education, training, certification, and licensure.”

As Delaware has an aging population due to retirees moving in recent years, health care services are projected to be in high demand. But for years, Delaware nurses have been retiring while education programs sometimes struggled to find space to accept rising nurses to fill their ranks. 

Delaware Health Care Association President and CEO Brian Frazee applauded Gov. John Carney and his administration’s work to boost the CNA pipeline in the state, calling it another helpful strategy as stakeholders work to strengthen the workforce, and the older population puts stress on the sector’s infrastructure.

“The Delaware Department of Human Resources’ announcement is important to maintaining a strong workforce throughout the health care continuum because adequate staffing at state facilities is critical to ensuring they are able to meet the needs of patients that are no longer in need of acute hospital care,” Frazee said.

However, Otto and the Delaware Nurses Association noted that while the state’s tuition program worked on recruitment of CNA candidates, it does not address retention rates. His organization has heard that CNAs seek better pay and improved work environments.

“The advertised salary equates to about $17 per hour. This is only $2 higher than Wawa’s and Amazon’s minimum wage. Yet, CNAs work in demanding positions and facilities. It will likely be hard to retain these individuals past their required commitments unless the state concurrently addresses total compensation and work environments,” Otto said.

With roughly 26,000 nurses in the state, Otto cautioned that more are needed to begin to address the nurse staffing crisis in the state, and improve health care outcomes, eliminate health inequities, and reduce health care spending. The state Human Resources department is currently exploring a similar tuition program for licensed practical nurses in state facilities.

Otto believes creating a program to research supply and demand trends for nurses to increase the workforce just through upskilling could be another game-changer. In the Fiscal Year 2024 bond bill signed by Gov. Carney, there was $200,000 set aside to create the Nursing Workforce Data Center through a partnership between Delaware Nurses Association and the Delaware Board of Nursing. 

The funding is still tied up with the state, Otto said.

“From this [program],  the state could implement data-driven programs and investments that increase the number of licensed and highly prepared, diverse nurses,” he said. “Delawareans deserve access to highly educated, trained, certified, and licensed nurses.”

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