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October 24, 2017

New Camden program promises residents free education – and a health care job

Cooper University Health Care spearheads innovative training initiative

Education Jobs
Camden_Cooper_Coding_Program John Kopp/

Members of the Cooper Health Careers Initiative pose with Camden stakeholders following the formal announcement of the new program, which promises job training and employment as a medical coder.

Leaundra McCullough did not know medical coding was a profession when she began a new program that promises to provide both the requisite training and a full-time job.

But the 20-year-old Camden resident had come to love web design without knowing much about that, either.  So, McCullough decided to give the new Cooper Health Careers Initiative a try.

The prospect of starting a full-time job at Cooper University Health Care, she said, proved particularly enticing.

"It makes it very attractive," McCullough said. "A lot of students go to college and they don't have a job, for sure, lined up in their field."

The Cooper Health Careers Initiative, formally announced on Thursday but in place since September, places Camden city residents into a certificate program in medical coding at Camden County College.

It also promises employment with Cooper University Health Care, so long as the students successfully complete an internship and meets Cooper's pre-employment requirements.

And it's free for Camden residents.

"It was really born from a common need," Cooper Chief Executive Officer Adrienne Kirby said at Tuesday's ceremony in Camden. "Literally, five meetings in a row of hearing people complain that they can't get coders and then thinking, 'This is crazy. We have people who need jobs.'"

A litany of Camden stakeholders came together to develop the program, which kicked off a class of 13 students. It costs about $12,000 per student, an expense covered by both public and private funding.

The program aims to meet Cooper's need for medical coders while providing employment to Camden's young adults. Some 45 percent of the city's residents are under age 25.

"I don't think I have heard of any program that guaranteed a job or a future career for someone. This program opens so many doors for the residents of this great city." – Jonathan Young, Camden County freeholder

Medical coders translate medical reports – like a diagnosis or prescription – into a set of codes used on medical claims. It allows for uniform documentation and efficiently transfers large amounts of information.

Many students don't have the financial resources necessary to complete four-year college degrees or other lengthy programs, said Patrick Findlator, a 21-year-old who enrolled in the new Cooper program.

The shorter length of the Cooper program – about 15 to 18 months – and the employment guarantee stood out to Findlator.

"That sounds amazing," Findlator said. "Before I heard about this program, I wouldn't have imagined anything like that."

At Cooper, the students will have an opportunity to climb a career ladder and also have access to tuition benefits for continuing education. And the starting salary isn't so bad, either.

Entry-level medical coders earn about $45,000 per year, Kirby said. And if the program proves successful, it could potentially expand to include other medical certificates.

"We have a great need," Kirby said. "We have a lot of community partners. Let's be creative and figure out a way that we can work together to make this happen."

Camden County Technical Schools and Hopeworks N Camden recruited and identified the incoming class. A timetable for a second class has yet to be determined.

The program is open to Camden residents who have completed a high school diploma or GED – or are in the process of doing so – and prepared for a college-level training program. It is also available to high school seniors at Camden County Technical Schools and high school graduates who are unemployed or underemployed.

"I don't think I have heard of any program that guaranteed a job or a future career for someone," Camden County Freeholder Jonathan Young said. "This program opens so many doors for the residents of this great city."

Students also are eligible to obtain a job with a work stipend at Hopeworks N Camden during their education.

A lengthy group of Camden stakeholders partnered together to develop the program – the Camden County Freeholder Board, Cooper University Health Care, Camden County Technical Schools, Camden County One Stop, Camden County College, Camden County Workforce Development Board and Hopeworks N Camden.

"That's a powerful consortium of people who are focused on doing the right thing for the young people Camden city, who are looking for employment," Hopeworks N Camden Executive Director Dan Rhoton said. "We are really proud of the fact that we are going to bring a program that provides 39 college credits into a certificate for medical coding – stackable credentials."