2018 State Legislature: Clock ticking on nursing compact

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The New Mexican

Lawmakers face a hard deadline this week to make sure that dozens or even hundreds of nurses can continue working in New Mexico.

Legislators have until midnight Friday to approve a new nurse licensing compact, an update to an agreement that allows nurses licensed in other states to practice in New Mexico without getting a separate certificate.

Hospitals say the compact is key to recruiting in a state facing a shortage of medical professionals. Missing the deadline to join the new system would leave New Mexico with fewer nurses to care for patients, they say.

Though not much usually happens during the first days of a legislative session, the high stakes amid a particularly rough flu season have forged what appears to be a bipartisan consensus that lawmakers must approve the compact and fast during their 30-day gathering that begins at noon Tuesday.

“We’ll get it done by Thursday or maybe even Wednesday,” said Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales. With Sens. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, and Howie Morales, D-Silver City, he is sponsoring a bill to join the new compact.

The bill hits home for Ingle. His district sits on the border with Texas, and he says some nurses at his local hospital live in the Lone Star State and commute into New Mexico, an arrangement made possible by the existing compact.

New Mexico has for years been one of 25 states in what is known as the Nurse Licensing Compact.

“All our border hospitals use people from across state lines,” Ingle says, adding that it works the other way, too, with some New Mexican nurses employed in neighboring states.

Even in Santa Fe, missing the deadline on the nursing compact would likely mean fewer staff at the local hospital.

Patrick Carrier, CEO of Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, says 59 nurses live out of state and work at the hospital. Known as “traveler nurses,” nearly two dozen of them do not have a license in New Mexico. Another 25 nurses live in the area but got their license elsewhere, he said.

“If the compact would not pass before the 19th, those nurses operating under the compact currently would not be able to work here,” Carrier said. “... We’d have to close some of our patient beds.”

The predicament reflects a broader shortage of nurses.

The workforce of nurses is growing older across the country and the rest of the population is aging, too, Carrier says.

There are simply not enough nurses locally to care for patients, he adds.

While lawmakers are on board with the new compact, some have expressed frustration that the state must scramble to avoid a staffing crisis.

The new compact, known as the Enhanced Nurse Licensing Compact, has evolved from the existing agreement.