NM launches push to boost nursing schools - Albuquerque Journal

NM launches push to boost nursing schools

Santa Fe residents Gabriela Cazares, left, and Adonna Kossman practice doffing and donning their personal protective gear last month during a program to become certified nursing assistants. The class they’re taking is often the first step to becoming a nurse. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

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SANTA FE – Facing a shortage of nurses, New Mexico is preparing to pour about $55 million into faculty endowments and other efforts to expand the state’s capacity to train and graduate nursing students.

The money – authorized in this year’s legislative session – will go toward financial aid and stipends for students, clinical simulation and training sites on college campuses, and the recruitment and retention of nursing faculty.

It could take years to pay off, but supporters say a home-grown supply of nurses is a critical part of the strategy for addressing staffing shortages in New Mexico.

For nursing students, the state appears to see little “brain drain” – or exodus of young talent – when they graduate. The College of Nursing at the University of New Mexico estimates that 94% of its undergraduate and 96% of its graduate students stay in the state.

The new funding “definitely will help,” Christine Kasper, dean of the UNM College of Nursing, said in an interview. “Educating nurses at all levels is an extremely expensive thing – everything from very advanced computerized simulation centers to the cost associated with (information technology) support.”

Lawmakers and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham approved the funding as part of this year’s $8.5 billion state budget. Much of the money is one-time funding – not ongoing – making it more appropriate for capital projects than, say, hiring more staff.

But it includes $30 million to establish faculty endowments, which would generate annual income that can be put toward faculty recruitment and retention. It’s intended for teaching positions.

The budget package also includes $15 million for expanding enrollment at college nursing programs, money that could go toward the construction or expansion of simulation laboratories.

Marisa Wolf, an emergency room nurse at Presbyterian Española Hospital, instructs Gabriela Cazares of Santa Fe on hand-washing Feb. 8 as part of a class at Santa Fe Community College. The course is usually the first step toward become a registered nurse. New Mexico legislators and the governor authorized extra funding this year intended to expand nursing education programs in New Mexico. Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

But details on how the endowment and program expansion money will be spent are not settled yet. The Higher Education Department plans to request applications from colleges throughout the state.

Stephanie Montoya, a spokeswoman for the department, described the funding as a significant investment that will help address “the critical shortage of nurses and other health care professionals, particularly in rural communities.”

New Mexico has a shortage of 6,200 registered nurses and clinical nurse specialists, according to a health care workforce report issued by the University of New Mexico last year.

The size of the workforce shrank over a recent four-year period. The number of nurses practicing in New Mexico fell from about 18,200 in 2017 to 15,600 in 2020, a 14% decline, according to the Board of Nursing.

Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said the state faces two key “bottlenecks” holding back the number of nursing students – too few clinical opportunities for training and a lack of qualified faculty.

The money approved this year is a good start, he said, but it will take a sustained effort over a number of years to start producing more nursing graduates.

“We’ve got an enormous waiting list at most of the schools,” Ortiz y Pino, chairman of the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee, said. “They have many more applicants than they can accept.”

Sen. Crystal Diamond, an Elephant Butte Republican and member of the Senate Finance Committee, said it’s been clear for years that New Mexico faced a “looming crisis” in its health infrastructure and workforce.

“New Mexico now faces a mass shortage of medical professionals, including nurses,” she said. “It is our hope that this funding will help us attract more nursing students and expand their training programs so we can properly serve the health care needs of all our people.”

In addition to the new money for faculty endowments and enrollment expansion, the state budget package also includes:

• $2.5 million to UNM to finish and equip the College of Nursing and the College of Population Health buildings. Construction hasn’t started yet.

• $1 million each to San Juan College and New Mexico Highlands, Eastern New Mexico and Western New Mexico universities for stipends and other financial aid for nursing students.

• $2 million to plan and construct a health triage center at Clovis Community College.

• $2 million to plan and construct a School of Nursing skills and simulation center at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

• About $130,000 for health and nursing program facilities at schools in Ruidoso and Tucumcari.

• $1.6 million to pay off student loans for health care professionals working in high-need health-related fields and communities, up from $400,000 this year.

Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, said the expansion of the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program – approved by lawmakers this year – should also help. It covers the cost of tuition and fees for students seeking their first associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

Stefanics said she also will push for ongoing funding for simulation labs and other training sites for nursing students. This year’s $15 million won’t go far, she said, but future legislative sessions could provide more funding.

“I believe there will be a continued effort by the Legislature to do that,” Stefanics said. “We want to have the opportunity to educate our own here in New Mexico, so they can … stay in New Mexico and work in our health care facilities.”

Monica Leyba, chief nurse executive at Christus St. Vincent, a northern New Mexico health system, said community colleges play an important role in training nurses and other health care staff. Health systems, she said, need a mix of veteran and younger nurses to meet staffing demands.

“We don’t have enough of either one in Santa Fe,” she said.

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