Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
The University of New Mexico Hospital’s new hospital tower is growing taller even before it opens.
The already approved seven-story, $387 million project got the green light earlier this year from the New Mexico Higher Education Department and State Board of Finance to make the building two stories higher. That will make it easier for the hospital to add close to 100 more beds in the future, said Mike Chicarelli, UNMH’s chief operations officer.
Construction is underway at the same time the hospital is stretched beyond its licensed bed capacity and is relying on hundreds of expensive travel nurses and other contractors, which is one of the reasons the hospital is nearly $30 million in the red for the current fiscal year.
The interior of the top two stories won’t be completed during the ongoing construction phase, which is expected to finish in October 2024. The project was announced in 2019 and broke ground in January 2021.
“We’ve already got the construction crew mobilized and we have the demand,” Chicarelli said. “So, you know, it’s just the timing is right. And so we took the opportunity.”
The state’s only Level 1 trauma center has been operating well above its licensed capacity since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the hospital has been forced to serve patients in nooks and crannies across the property.
Construction of the new building at Yale and Lomas NE is taking shape and UNMH has a webcam of the construction site on its website.
Once completed, UNMH will add to its number of adult inpatient beds by about 28%. There are about 308 of those beds right now and that will increase to about 396 once the new tower opens and hospital officials repurpose existing emergency room and intensive care unit beds, which will be housed in the new tower after it opens.
The tower’s top floors, which will be funded with UNMH capital reserves, could be turned into 96 additional beds, though there is no set timeline for that project. UNMH CEO Kate Becker told Bernalillo County commissioners last month that section could open in 2026.
Doug Brooks, the executive director of hospital development, said the new hospital tower will provide updated surgical rooms and intensive care beds. He said UNMH’s current surgery rooms were built in the 1950s. Brooks also said that hospital officials got feedback from employees and created more break areas and other amenities for staff.
“That comes in handy when it comes to recruiting, too,” Chicarelli said of the new tower once it’s completed. “Because people who are in health care … want to practice in the place that’s got the most advanced technology and the most worker friendly space that you can find. And so we look at that as a recruiting opportunity for us.”
Construction is underway as the hospital goes through a tough time financially.
The hospital was nearly $30 million in the red at the end of the third quarter of the 2022 fiscal year in March. That deficit had ballooned up from about $6 million at the midway point of the fiscal year, according to UNM documents. A surge in the cost of traveling nurses and other contractors as well as the hospital having to care for COVID-19 patients instead of performing revenue-driving surgeries are the driving factors for the shortfall, Becker said.
The red ink isn’t because of a lack of patients. Becker said UNMH’s facilities team has had to shuffle around the hospital creating space for patients, specifically citing a single conference room that’s doubled as “at least five different things in the last two years,” including a respiratory care center, urgent care and now a discharge clinic.
She noted that the hospital has added 840 jobs since the pandemic began but also had to rely on over 500 contract traveling nurses to handle the load. Whereas the hospital was using 166 travelers in March 2020, the number had skyrocketed to 666 by March 2022, according to data Becker presented.
The high cost of that labor has contributed to the hospital’s deficit – employee pay and benefits, which averaged $46 million per month in fiscal year 2020, spiked to $70.6 million by January 2022 – as did the loss of what Becker called revenue “drivers,” such as surgeries, that the pandemic pushed out.
“When COVID goes up, everything else goes down,” she said.
But Becker said there are signs the tide is turning and that the forecast anticipates UNMH will finish better than break-even in the next fiscal year.
The hospital is recapturing some of the lost revenue by getting more surgeries on the books, she said, and it is also cutting back on traveling nurse expenses. Fewer are needed now, and falling demand means the hospital is able to pay lower wages.
The CEO said the hospital is also aggressively recruiting permanent staff, including some nurses who entered the travel pool in the last two years but are returning home.
“We really have a big push in our talent acquisition group, on social media, in hiring events, in accelerating interviewing and making sure that if we do an interview with you today and we can do, like, a quick background check, we’ll make an offer to you today. Because we want to catch you before someone else does,” she told the commission.