Medical coding becomes first program in proposed California online community college

April 24, 2018

California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Oakley

If lawmakers approve Gov. Jerry Brown’s ambitious plan to launch a statewide online-only community college, the first students to benefit will be aspiring health professionals who are crucial to the bottom lines of hospitals and medical clinics.

Officials from the California Community Colleges system announced on Tuesday that the first career pathway the proposed online college will prepare workers for is medical coding, a middle-skill position that can pay well above $50,000 a year and one that is in high demand. The state needs an estimated 1,600 medical coders annually through 2024.

“This is a very important milestone in the development of the online college,” said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California Community Colleges system. “Medical coding is a very attractive entry point for the health care field.”

The proposed online community college would develop academic programs for multiple career pathways at a cost of $240 million over seven years. Unlike traditional community colleges that focus on career development and preparing students for associate and bachelor’s degrees, the online college would instead provide short-term training that is aligned with industry standards, its backers say. It is intended principally to serve the 2.5 million “stranded workers” ages 25-34 who lack college certificates or degrees.

While planning for the new college is moving ahead, the online college proposal is meeting resistance from several community college faculty groupsSome leading state lawmakers have also raised questions and faulted the governor’s plan for its lack of details. Other legislators ask why the state can’t instead fund the current online programs underway at the state’s existing community colleges.

If the online college is approved, Oakley has said he expects the college to enroll between 25,000 and 30,000 students within its first three years of existence.

The first students would enroll after the summer of 2019. Many of the college’s details are unknown, including the exact cost to students, although Oakley has indicated tuition will be similar to what other community colleges charge, which is $46 a unit (a full-time student takes between 12 and 15 units a semester).

The Legislature has until June 15 to approve the online college as part of the state’s budget for the coming fiscal year. 

The medical coding program was announced Wednesday during a conference call with reporters that included union leaders and workers.

“We’re proud to be able to partner with the chancellor and the Legislature to advance this development of a public asset, such as the online community college,” said Alma Hernandez, executive director of the Service International Employees Union (SEIU) California, representing over 700,000 workers.

She said that workers are presented with false choices to advance in their careers. “One of the choices is a dead-end job with no room to move up. Another false choice is there is an option to go to school … that is maybe affordable but is often not accessible to them.”

The SEIU-UHW Joint Employer Education Fund, a non-profit partnership between the SEIU-United Health Workers West union and health care industry employers, will use its network of union members and employers to give feedback on the medical coding program. The SEIU-UHW union has nearly 100,000 members in California.

Oakley said that while some community colleges currently offer medical coding programs, none is offering training on the scale the state needs to address the demand for medical coders.

Medical coders identify and label the medical care that a doctor’s office, clinic or hospital provided a patient, sending that information to insurers in the form of codes made up of letters and numbers. Without accurate coding, doctors and nurses could miss out on revenue, making medical coders key to a medical provider’s bottom line. Coders rely on patient records, medical transcripts and other information about a person’s time in the medical office to determine what to charge insurers.

The medical coding training could take four to eight months for full-time students and 18-months for those studying part-time. Current health workers such as billers or receptionists, and workers outside the field with high school diplomas, are potential candidates.

Right now for-profit colleges dominate the training for medical coding, producing an estimated 80 percent of the medical coding certificates. For-profit colleges are several times more expensive than community colleges and have been the subject of numerous lawsuits claiming the colleges defrauded students or misled them on potential earnings. Gov. Brown has promoted the online college as a way to steer students away from the for-profit schools.

According to the AAPC, a business association of medical coders, education for medical coding should include anatomy, physiology and medical terminology education. The group offers medical coding training.

There are several certificates for medical coders that signal to employers they’re ready for the job. The American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) lists several, including the Certified Coding Specialist. Coders can advance up a ladder of increasing skill and sophistication.

It’s not clear whether the online college will train students to earn these designations specifically, but the point is to align the courses they take with employer demands. Dignity Health, one of the nation’s largest health systems and the largest in California, is advising the college on the program.

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