Minnesota’s free training hurt nursing assistant schools

A group of nursing assistant training schools has sued Minnesota, saying their business has been undercut by the state’s free training program.

With its no-cost training for would-be nursing assistants, Minnesota’s two-year-old Next Generation Nursing Assistant training program has been hailed as a solution to the state’s worsening health care labor shortage. But providers left on the outside of that program say they have struggled.

“Business is slow. I’m not really getting any new students through the door. I’m getting calls asking about free classes that I don’t provide and cannot provide,” said Christine Okundaye of the Nostalgia School of Health Careers in a videoconference explaining why she joined the lawsuit. “If this continues, I definitely will have to shut my doors.”

The case filed in U.S. District Court asserts that Minnesota’s program violated federal law by creating anti-competitive pricing and excluding small schools from participation. It seeks an injunction to halt the program, which presumably would boost enrollment and activity at the small schools that filed the lawsuit.

“Even the state government can’t cavalierly engage in predatory pricing to wipe out private business,” said Erick Kaardal, the attorney representing the schools.

The Minnesota Department of Higher Education declined comment per policy on pending litigation, but spokesman Keith Hovis called Next Generation “a critical investment in the health of our state. The program is helping hospitals, long-term care facilities, and veteran’s homes hire for hard-to-fill positions while breaking down financial barriers and connecting Minnesotans to careers in the healthcare field.”

Nursing assistants are vital to hospitals and nursing homes — feeding, moving and grooming patients and residents while also monitoring them for emergency needs or declines in physical or mental health. Low hourly wages of $15 to $25 make recruitment challenging, though.

The vacancy rate for nursing assistant jobs exceeded 17% in spring 2022, one of the highest rates of any occupation, according to the most recent survey by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

The idea for Next Generation emerged in December 2021, after Gov. Tim Walz ordered National Guard members to staff nursing homes that were overwhelmed with patients amid a severe COVID-19 wave and a shortage of workers. He proposed training 1,000 certified nursing assistants, or CNAs, in one month to relieve the Guard members and increase the permanent workforce.

The program in its first two rounds offered no-cost training through 19 state colleges and five private companies to 2,500 graduates. Training through high schools also readied another 570 students as of this March to work as certified nursing assistants.

The Legislature allocated funding this spring to extend the program into a third round, in which another 307 students are being trained at 15 state colleges.

“We are proud of the important work … to address the critical shortage of Certified Nursing Assistants in Minnesota, and we are confident we will prevail in this litigation,” said Doug Anderson, a spokesman for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.

Kardaal said he represents eight plaintiffs, including small, minority-owned businesses and training programs operated as second jobs by practicing nurses. Some still don’t understand why they couldn’t be part of the program and want an injunction to make a fresh start, he said. “Our hope is … my clients’ small businesses can thrive again.”