January 28, 2022

Health officials warn of nursing shortage

Nursing and hospital leaders repeatedly used the word “crisis” Thursday to describe New Mexico’s shortage of nurses.

They spoke to the Senate Finance Committee to request additional money to train more nurses and expand nursing faculty positions at the state’s colleges and universities to accommodate more students. A University of New Mexico study determined at the end of 2020 the state had a shortage of more than 6,200 nurses.

Although the shortage has been evident for years, experts said the coronavirus pandemic has exposed gaping holes in the system. Retirements, demand for home schooling of children and departures because of jobs lost by spouses have increased the shortages, said Lillian Montoya, CEO and president of Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe.

Those vacancies in New Mexico and elsewhere have led to demand for highly paid travel nurses, who move around the state and country on short-term contracts to beef up hospital staffs.

The solution in part is a “grow your own” strategy, health care officials said, which means training New Mexico residents, who would be more inclined to live and work in the state. Regardless, they said, state nursing programs need many more student slots and, consequently, more teaching positions.

There is “only one way to address the crisis,” said nursing organization lobbyist Linda Siegle, and that is through the educational system.

During a special legislative session in late 2021, the Legislature allocated $15 million to help ease the problem. Nursing schools will compete for that money.

Health care organizations are now seeking $15 million annually to expand college nursing programs through Senate Bill 50. They hope to see additional money allocated in the current session to retain and recruit more hospital personnel to deal with staffing shortages.

The Senate Finance Committee was sympathetic. “I just want you guys to feel our sincere gratitude for your service,” state Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, said to those who testified.

Sen. William Burt, R-Alamogordo, said he appreciated the challenge of paying travel nurses, who make far more money than hospital-employed nurses because of the high demand for them.

“It just goes on and on and on and on,” Burt said. “But your bottom line just won’t allow that.”

Montoya said travel nurses currently are making about three times more than they typically would make and are about a quarter of her nursing workforce now.

Hospital and nursing school administrators cited several other initiatives in their effort to build a nursing workforce: helping other hospital employees transition into nursing; holding job fairs; hosting summer nursing camps for kids; creating high school clubs; and recruiting biology majors and other science students.

Terri Tewart, a dean at Santa Fe Community College, said nurses are vital to the quality of communities and individuals’ lives.

“They take care of each of us,” Tewart said. “What we’re looking for is to support the health of our communities and one another.”