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New Mexico nursing shortage prompts call for more funding

ALBUQUERQUE – New Mexico didn’t have enough nurses even before the pandemic and nursing advocates renewed their push Thursday for lawmakers to boost funding to increase capacity at nursing schools around the state to remedy a situation made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.

Legislative analysts have estimated that New Mexico needs more than 6,200 nurses to meet demand.

Budget proposals by the Democrat-dominated Legislature and Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham include $15 million for the state Department of Higher Education to help nursing programs hire additional faculty, pay for student stipends and fund other efforts aimed at expanding nursing school programs.

Supporters have estimated that the additional funding could increase the number of nursing students by about 1,500 a year.

Linda Siegle, a lobbyist for the New Mexico Nurses Association, said New Mexico needs a consistent effort lasting years to work toward erasing its nursing deficit.

“So we’re going to need this money and going to need more money every year if we’re serious about addressing the crisis in our state,” she told members of the Senate Finance Committee. “And there’s no other way to do it, there’s no other way out of this crisis other than growing our own nurses. Thousands of nurses are not going to move to New Mexico.”

Siegle and others testified that the pipeline of nursing students has declined because some are often unprepared for the academic rigors involved or may have financial hardships that prevent them from completing training. Those who testified said having more instructors and better infrastructure to support nursing students could help alleviate those problems.

Separate legislation would provide an avenue for nursing students to pay off loans.

A survey conducted by the New Mexico Hospital Association in September showed that 12% of the state’s nursing workforce consisted of traveling nurses. That included New Mexico nurses who travel to other parts of the state to work as higher paid contract nurses.

Lillian Montoya, president and CEO of St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe, said the challenges related to the pandemic are different this year as more people sought care for non-COVID-19-related health problems. Whether the hospital treats them in the intensive care unit or monitors them as part of a home health program, Montoya said nurses still are needed.

She said about 25% of her nursing workforce is made up of contract nurses as opposed to staff members.

“What this pandemic did was reveal that we have so much more to do in terms of aggressively planning for workforce pipeline, both one that we grow locally and one that we’re able to attract from out of state until we can grow our own to get to that place,” Montoya said.

Officials from community colleges and universities that operate some of New Mexico's nursing education programs said most of their students end up staying in the communities in which they are educated.

Alexa Doig, the director of the School of Nursing at New Mexico State University, said the school several years ago recognized the need to address the shortage then and used university and private donor funding to grow the program by about 35%.

“We’re really at a stage where we need recurring funding to be able to even just sustain this, let alone try to increase enrollment,” she said, pointing to costs related to computer systems, training facilities and accreditation requirements.

Democratic Sen. Nancy Rodriguez of Santa Fe said building more partnerships between hospitals and the state’s nursing schools will be key as New Mexico tries to fill the gap.

“The variants, the virus and so on, it’s only a contributor but we’ve had this since way before,” she said of the shortage. “We knew this problem was significant and we just let it go. We thought it was going to go away and so now we know what we’re facing.”