NM hospital leaders alert lawmakers to staffing 'crisis'

Dan McKay
Albuquerque Journal
The American flag is reflected in a window of the Roundhouse, New Mexico's capitol building in Santa Fe, on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021.

SANTA FE - Hospital executives pleaded with New Mexico lawmakers for financial help Monday, citing a chronic shortage of nurses and $274 million in financial losses amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The size of the local nursing workforce is eroding, the administrators said, as health care providers face hostility at work and in the community, endure the trauma of COVID-19 deaths and weigh more lucrative salaries elsewhere in the country.

"We have an extremely fragile workforce," said Tim Johnsen, senior vice president and chief operating officer for Presbyterian Healthcare Services. "Clearly, this is not a sustainable situation."

In a hearing at the Capitol, members of the New Mexico Hospital Association said they support a proposal for $15 million in annual funding to expand nursing education programs in the state. The money could pay for stipends and other efforts to attract nursing students.

But shorter-term financial aid is also needed, hospital officials said, as the cost of traveling nurses has more than doubled — from $70 to $80 an hour per nurse before the pandemic to $150 to $220 now. In some cases, the administrators said, nurses are leaving local jobs to take the more-lucrative traveler positions.

Troy Clark, president and CEO of the New Mexico Hospital Association, said he would come back to legislators with a specific budget proposal before the end of the year.

Lawmakers are set to meet for a 30-day regular session starting Jan. 18.

More:Spaceport America seeks $2M budget increase from lawmakers next year

Federal aid to hospitals, Clark said, hasn't kept pace with their losses in revenue and increased costs amid the pandemic. He estimated that hospitals in the state had about $641 million in losses but received only $367 million in federal relief through early this year — for a net loss of $274 million.

Any additional funding available to hospitals, he and other administrators said, would likely go toward efforts to recruit and retain employees.

New Mexico has had a nursing shortage for decades, hospital leaders said, but the pandemic has increased pressure on the workforce.

At this point, Clark said, more nurses are leaving than entering the profession.

"If we don't start now," he said, "the problem will only continue to get worse."

The staffing shortage exacerbates New Mexico's limited supply of hospital beds, which is lower than the national average. In written testimony, the Hospital Association estimated that more than 450 beds aren't available for patient care because of the lack of staffing.

Johnsen described the challenges — such as understaffing and burnout — as a "crisis."

Christina Campos, administrator at Guadalupe County Hospital, said the competition for nurses — and staffing shortages — are happening throughout the nation.

"The whole country is on fire," she said.

Patient load climbs

The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in New Mexico, meanwhile, climbed to 559 on Monday — a 12% increase over the total reported a week ago.

Seven hospitals in the state have activated crisis standards of care, a step that can allow the rationing of care when demand exceeds medical resources.

More:New Mexico lawmakers pressed to make water a priority

The state Department of Health on Monday reported 3,658 new cases over the last three days, a 1% decrease from what was reported for a similar period last week.

New Mexico also added 14 additional COVID-19 fatalities to its official death toll, pushing the total to 5,277 residents. Six of the 14 deaths were adults from Bernalillo County.

The state ranks No. 3 in the nation for most COVID-19 cases per capita over the last week, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Colorado is eighth, and Utah is 10th.

New Mexico, however, is beating the national average on vaccinations. The state ranks No. 12 in the country for the highest percentage of the population with at least one dose, according to the CDC.

In a recent four-week period, people who weren't fully vaccinated made up 92% of COVID-19 deaths in New Mexico, 79% of hospitalizations and 71% of new cases.


Hospital leaders delivered Monday's presentation to the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee.

Lawmakers are preparing for a legislative session in which they expect to have plenty of money available — due to strong growth in state revenue and an influx of federal stimulus cash.

State Rep. Phelps Anderson, an independent from Roswell, said the pandemic has put hospitals in an impossible financial position.

"I want New Mexico hospitals post-COVID to emerge stronger than they went in," he said. "I think anything less is a disservice to the citizens of New Mexico."

More from the Legislature:Free lunches earn business access to New Mexico lawmakers

Sen. Bill Tallman, D- Albuquerque, said the testimony about nurses facing mistreatment "is very troubling and tragic and disheartening."

Johnsen, a nurse and Presbyterian administrator, said health care workers early in the pandemic were treated like heroes. But it's a much different environment now, he said, as nurses and others face sneers and anger when they wear their scrubs in public.

At work, Johnsen said, nurses are sometimes kicked or spat on. Presbyterian has spent millions improving security at its hospitals, he said.

"I truly never thought I'd have to worry about a nurse's personal safety at work," he said, "but I do now."

He didn't say what had prompted increased security inside hospitals.

But in interviews, some doctors in the state have told the Journal about facing hostility from patients and their families skeptical about the severity of COVID-19 and the effectiveness of vaccines.

In any case, Johnsen said, the health care workforce in New Mexico is struggling with the trauma of handling so many dead bodies — including seven COVID-19 deaths in one hospital on one day alone.

Others are reading: