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Travel nurses are an expensive stopgap in New Mexico

Nurse with patient
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New Mexico was already facing a healthcare staffing shortage before the COVID-19 pandemic and now it has only gotten worse. One way the state is trying to fill gaps is by using more traveling nurses. But that’s an expensive solution.

Brandi Thompson, a local emergency department nurse, likes her workplace, but lately, the lure of becoming a travel nurse has grown stronger.

“Every day I go to work and more and more people who are staff nurses are being swayed because the money that's being offered is slowly becoming more valuable,” Thompson said.

Hospitals are paying travel nurses upwards of $200 an hour compared to wages of $35 to $40 an hour for regular nursing staff. That’s according to New Mexico Department of Health Acting Secretary Dr. David Scrase, who addressed the issue during a COVID-19 briefing in December. Scrase said because the travel nurse market is private, New Mexico has little control over the rates.

“We don't have the ability to tell almost anybody other than the small number of DOH hospital-like facilities, what to pay nurses. It's a market for that and the market isn't working,” Dr. Scrase said.

New Mexico Hospital Association President Troy Clark said those rates have steadily escalated as the pandemic drags on.

“Last February, the demand got high enough nationwide that you were paying $120 to $130 an hour. Last July that got up to $180 an  hour. We're now running $185 to $205 an hour,” Clark pointed out.

They were $265 an hour in early January. Clark said the travel market rates are not tenable.

“The long term sustainability of hospital operations cannot afford to pay out the rates that they're paying for travel nursing.”

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Ike Swetlitz, Joe Rull
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Soaring wages for travel nurses in New Mexico

New Mexico competes nationwide for the same workers provided by companies coordinating contracts, and within New Mexico that means hospitals and clinics compete against each other as well.

Isabel Brooks has been an intensive care unit nurse for over a decade and recently finished a six-month contract as a travel nurse in New Mexico working with COVID-19 patients. She wanted to relieve overburdened staff but began to realize that the problems are systemic–when a nurse accepts a travel position, more work may fall on other staff. Her name and voice have been altered because she fears how speaking out could impact her career, a common sentiment among nurses.

“I go into this hospital that's desperate for ICU nurses. Well, now it feels at first like I'm helping, but really, then I find one other respiratory therapist has two more ICU patients that they're dealing with. The doctors have two more patients. The CNA has two more patients. So while, you feel like you're coming in to offer this relief, this help as a travel nurse to the staff nurses, I don't know that you really are," Brooks said.

Some travel nurses work positions as short as four weeks. And they don’t even have to travel very far these days. That’s according to Eleanor Chavez, executive director of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, Local D1199

“Yep, you don't have to leave the state anymore to be a traveler. You can stay in the same city and be a traveler,” said Director Chavez.

Paying staff nurses rates similar to those of traveling workers is currently not an option. Scrase has said the Federal Emergency Management Agency reimburses hospitals for some COVID response costs, but not enough to offset the wage differences between staff and travel rates. Officials with the New Mexico Hospital Association say whole tiers of labor costs are impacted when base rates for one position are changed. Once the rates are negotiated up, they are hard to negotiate back down, post-pandemic.

The association and the union supported a letter from Gov Michelle Lujan Grisham to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra last August asking that the federal government intervene to cap the prices charged by travel nurse agencies during this public health emergency, which mirrors the requests made by the American Hospital Association in December. There's no sign that the market has been capped and there has been no response to the letter from the Governor.

For nurses like Brandi Thompson the temptation to jump ship to the Travel Market is real.

“Every single day when I go to work, I have this internal battle like what the hell am I doing?  I could be working here at this exact same facility making four times as much as I am right now," Thompson said.