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SANTA FE – A coalition of nurses and educators is asking the Legislature to make $50 million available to address the chronic shortage of nurses in New Mexico – spending that would be targeted toward the expansion of college nursing programs.
They made the pitch Thursday to the powerful Senate Finance Committee, whose members seemed receptive to the idea.
The budget request would include a $15 million grant program to expand college nursing programs and $35 million to create faculty endowments to pay for professors of nursing.
Sen. George Muñoz, a Gallup Democrat and chairman of the committee, said the state should also consider free tuition and other incentives for nursing students.
“This is a critical issue that affects every single person in this state at some point in time,” he said after the hearing, addressing his colleagues in the full Senate.
New Mexico faces a shortage of 6,200 registered nurses, according to a health care workforce report issued by the University of New Mexico last year.
The problem may be growing worse. The number of nurses practicing in New Mexico fell by 14% in a recent four-year period, from about 18,200 nurses in 2017 to 15,600 in 2020, according to the Board of Nursing.
The demand for nurses, by contrast, has spiked amid the COVID-19 pandemic and is expected to continue growing throughout the decade.
Lawmakers didn’t take any formal action Thursday but expressed general support for addressing the shortage in some way.
“The profession is in crisis right now,” Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, said after the presentation.
Lillian Montoya, president and CEO of Christus St. Vincent health system, said hospitals throughout the country are competing for nurses. Hundreds of hospital beds in the state, she said, are open because there’s no one to staff them.
“We started this pandemic already in a national shortage,” Montoya told lawmakers.
Montoya joined the New Mexico Nurses Association and leaders from college nursing programs in support of Thursday’s budget request.
The coalition pointed to data showing nurses usually stay to work where they’re trained, making it all the more important to expand the number of nursing students in New Mexico.
“Our graduates stay in our communities,” said Terri Tewart, a registered nurse and dean at Santa Fe Community College. “They take care of each of us.”
Any expansion of nursing programs, she said, would maintain the academic rigor required of students.
The college leaders who spoke Thursday reported that they’re already at capacity but could expand to handle more students if extra funding is approved.
The $15 million request could pay for hiring more nursing faculty, increasing faculty salaries to retain educators recruited by hospitals and reducing the cost of clinical training for students. Additional classroom space and practice equipment are also priorities.
The state Higher Education Department would issue grants in the fiscal year that starts this summer on a competitive basis after evaluating applications from colleges. Ongoing funding in future years would likely be required.
The $35 million, in turn, would establish endowed faculty positions, allowing a professor or instructor to be paid with revenue from an endowment fund.
“There’s no way out of this crisis other than growing our own nurses,” said Linda Siegle, a lobbyist for the New Mexico Nurses Association.
The college leaders said they face challenges beyond just hiring more faculty.
Qualified applicants for nursing schools are limited, they said, and some students – many of whom are first-generation college students – change their mind while in school, often because of the financial challenge.
Some of the requested state funding might be used for mentoring, tutoring or other initiatives to support students preparing to apply for nursing school or already in.
Crafting a budget plan is a priority in the 30-day legislative session that runs through Feb. 17. New Mexico is awash in cash, thanks to federal stimulus funds, booming oil and gas revenue, and increased consumer spending.
State spending is expected to reach $8.4 billion in a budget package now under development.