Margie Rodriguez has worked in the health care field for eight years, first as a certified nursing assistant and then as a medical assistant.

Margie Rodriguez has worked in the health care field for eight years, first as a certified nursing assistant and then as a medical assistant.

More recently, the 32-year-old Eagle Point resident went back to school for more training and an opportunity to boost her hourly pay by as much as $4.

Rodriguez picked up new certification through Rogue Community College's Allied Health Care program.

She is among the hundreds of students who hope to move up or into jobs at local hospitals, clinics, coordinated care organizations and senior communities as the health care profession prepares for an onslaught of thousands of newly insured patients.

That onslaught is expected to come when Affordable Healthcare Act mandates go live in five months.

Reconstituted in 2010, the Allied Health Services program expanded RCC's scope far beyond its two nursing tracks to include everything from occupational therapy and physical therapist assistants to certified nursing assistants for acute, dementia and restorative care.

The move positions RCC to be a major health care player in the Southern Oregon region, where an estimated 20,000 people will gain health insurance when the healthcare act kicks in.

"Whether it's Asante, Providence, a physician's office or clinics working in more rural areas, we're going to provide people to staff those settings," said John Osbourn, dean of RCC's School of Health and Public Service.

RCC's program received a $3 million Labor Department grant last year to help fund instruction for the program for the next four years. Then in July, the college was awarded an $8 million matching grant from state capital construction bonds to expand facilities in Medford, White City and Grants Pass. RCC has four years to match the $8 million.

"That has allowed us to put key personnel in place to build programs and expand our capacity," Osbourn said.

The program helps fill job openings at local clinics and doctors' offices, while improving earning power for many of its graduates in a region where unemployment still hovers above state and national levels.

"When you create opportunities for folks, it automatically enhances RCC's attractiveness in the region," Osbourn said. "A lot of people are looking at it as an avenue for higher wage opportunities."

Graduates from the program, Osbourn said, earn anywhere from $23,000 to $55,000 annually. Certified nursing assistants, for example, earn $9 to $10 per hour, and CNAs with advanced training earn in the range of $12. Occupational therapy assistants and physical therapy assistants are in the top 10 jobs in demand nationally and can earn more than $25 per hour.

During 2012-13, 293 people completed training or certification in 15 fields, and Osbourn said those numbers could swell to between 350 and 550 as students begin completing the new programs.

A graduate of RCC's community health worker program, Rodriguez now works for LaClinica, serving as bridge between patients and care teams. She assesses patient's living environments, whether they are closer to primary care physicians or emergency departments and what barriers might keep them from seeking care.

"I'm looking at things from a patient's point of view," Rodriquez said. "I work with those 18 and over and a lot of the barriers to seeking health care I've seen are generational and passed along. If you have a parent that doesn't know about medical resources then it is passed along to the next generation."

As insurance rosters expand, existing health care providers will see their resources stretched.

"We don't have the capacity to train as many workers as the region demands, whether in Southern Oregon or the broader Oregon region," said Julie Levison, human resources director at Providence Medford Medical Center. "We appreciate RCC partnering with us to give students just-in-time skills.

Across town, Sheri Bodager, vice president and executive director at Asante Physician Partners, said the RCC program has eased the strain of finding health professionals with appropriate training as the January deadline grows nearer.

"Our medical practices could be nearly overwhelmed with people seeking care," Bodager said. "That is why we are planning for this new demand by developing new primary care teams. In order to build these teams we need to have access to trained ancillary staff. The course work for most of these positions does not require a lot of time and can result in a great job in health care."

State senator and primary care physician Alan Bates has observed the dearth of available professionals in his own practice.

"We have a real shortage in certain areas of health care in Jackson County," said Bates.

Physical therapy, respiratory therapy, primary care and medical assistants topped his list.

"RCC can't supply all those workers, but it can supply a subset of very important workers," Bates said "We hope to see a significant increase in medical assistants in our Medford offices and nurse practitioners. We've had a terrible shortage.

Bates, who has been involved for decades in reforming health care approaches in the state, said his office has had two openings for medical assistants for two months.

"The ones we've got are working overtime and are exhausted," Bates said. "Those are $14 to $16 an hour positions with full benefits and 401ks. It's good pay and we just can't find anyone qualified for the work. But when the new group of patients comes in Jan. 1, we'll have to be prepared for it."

As the RCC program hits full stride, it could enhance the ability of organizations reaching into rural areas that are beyond the 15- or 20-minute drive to doctors' offices for most of Jackson County's 200,000 residents.

In the Southern Oregon area tracked by non-profit Jefferson Regional Health Alliance — taking in Jackson, Josephine, Klamath and Curry counties, as well as a portion of Douglas County — about 20,000 people will gain access to health insurance, said Project Coordinator Anne Alftine.

"It may be the working poor, it may be folks accessing care through Community Health Care or LaClinica or who may have been connected to some care in the past, but they will all have access to a lot more services."

Rural residents might have had insurance in the past, but transportation to health care providers was a challenge.

"There will now be lots of opportunities through coordinated care organizations, who will be hiring people for their innovative models," Alftine said.

There are four coordinated care organizations in Southern Oregon: AllCare (Curry, Josephine, Jackson, southern Douglas); Primary Health of Josephine; Jackson Care Connect (Asante, Providence, Community Health Center, LaClinica, Jackson County Mental Health); and Cascade Comprehensive Care (Klamath County and Skylake Hospital).

"It may be for support or primary care providers may hire them as well," Alftine said. "If you don't have all these folks trained you end being behind the 8-ball. So it's a lot more efficient to have them trained and ready to go."

Medford-based Community Health Center has doubled its staff in the past five years to 106 employees, said Executive Director Peg Crowley.

"It's very difficult to say how many additional folks we will serve," Crowley said. "But it will be totally dependent on the availability of providers, funds and physical spaces for exam rooms."

The organization has been in Butte Falls for more than five years, working at a school and is gearing up for a similar program at Prospect. Crowley said CHC tries to hire qualified people within the communities it serves.

"Getting qualified staff in very rural communities can be a daunting challenge," she said. "That's where RCC can be a real asset."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness.