A $147,203 federal grant will help Baker Technical Institute provide improved distance education training to students interested in pursuing health care careers in remote areas of the region, including Blue Mountain Hospital in John Day, in the months ahead.

John Huffman, state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, announced the award Oct. 7 in a press release.

“With the vast geographic distances in this part of the state, it is not always feasible for rural residents to travel to attend classes,” Huffman stated. “This investment will give those who want to begin a career in health care the ability to access classes remotely, increasing the job opportunities available to them.”

Doug Dalton, BTI president, said the organization applied for the grant funding prior to in-person classes being shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring.

“Now distance learning is in the spotlight ... throughout the world, really,” he said.

The USDA funding, and an additional $22,075 contribution from the Baker School District, will be used to provide state-of-the-art technology to train students not only in Baker City, but also in communities in Grant, Harney, Morrow and Wallowa counties.

BTI, which has been housed in the northwest wing of Baker High School since it was established in 2014, is the hub site for the health care training. Community hospitals in the region — Blue Mountain Hospital in John Day, Harney District Hospital in Burns, Morrow County Health District in Heppner and Wallowa Memorial Hospital in Enterprise — will serve as end-user sites for the program.

"The USDA grant is an amazing gift to the people in our rural communities, as this provides more local health care workers that care for the patients in our hometowns," said Shae Voigt, the human resources coordinator at Blue Mountain Hospital. "We are excited for the career and life-enrichment opportunities that will follow the efforts this grant supports. Growing our own is always ideal and will become more prominent and promising in our small towns with initiatives such as this."

In most cases, students, for whom Chromebooks will be provided, can study from their homes. Those who don’t have reliable internet service would be able to visit the hospital in their area and access the internet at that site, said Tonia Springer, BTI program coordinator. The Chromebooks will be rotated through students at each site.

The grant money will be used to establish two teaching labs at BTI from which lessons will be streamed throughout the state over the Zoom computer app.

Through partnerships with the participating hospitals — which also include those in Baker City, La Grande and Pendleton — students will complete in-person skills labs and clinical work (overseen by licensed staff) with clinic or hospital patients or residents of long-term care centers, Springer said.

“This was an attempt to hit rural communities,” Dalton said of the program expansion the grant funding will allow. “We hope to work in other hospitals down the road.”

Springer said BTI began the grant application process in February of this year.

“We saw the grant opportunity and we like to be innovative,” she said. “We like to be able to reach into rural and frontier communities.”

Dalton said he believes the BTI project was funded because of the training center’s reputation for building successful programs with integrity that are created in partnerships, such as those developed with area hospitals, and with state and national leaders.

U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Oregon Democrats, expressed their support for BTI’s successful grant application in an email.

“Eastern Oregon benefits in a big way from this good news that taps into technology to educate the health care providers of tomorrow in rural communities,” Wyden said. “The importance of telemedicine and distance learning has been magnified during the coronavirus pandemic, and I’m gratified that Eastern Oregon has earned these federal resources to support a robust health care system and a strong quality of life.”

Merkley, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee, said: “High quality, reliable broadband internet service has never been more important than it is right now — especially for our students who are learning remotely, and for our health care providers who are working around the clock to provide exceptional care and essential services to their communities.

“I’m pleased that this funding is headed to our state, where it will make Baker Technical Institute’s remote health classes accessible for more students, and help us keep communities in Eastern Oregon safe,” Merkley said.

Dalton noted that most of the instruction, which provides training in courses including a Certified Nursing Assistant program, phlebotomy, emergency medicine and medical terminology, also is offered to high school students at no cost.

“This is good for the students, good for the communities and good for economic development,” Dalton said.

More information is available by calling BTI at 541-524-2651 or online at bakerti.org.

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