WESLACO, Texas – Manny Vela, CEO of Valley Baptist Health System, says he welcomes Texas Workforce Commission efforts to bring Mexican workers into the state to address the nursing shortage.

Vela pointed out that Texas is currently 30,000 nurses short of what it needs. In the Rio Grande Valley, Vela said, the deficit is about 3,200. And, according to Texas Workforce Commissioner Julian Alvarez, 57,000 new nurses will be needed by 2032.

The Texas Workforce Commission (TWC)  is currently working on two projects to address the nursing shortage. One is to have an apprenticeship program for nurses and the other is cut through the red tape so that it is easy to import nurses from Mexico

“Two great ideas and definitely examples of how we should be thinking along those lines, outside the box, right, to secure more more on talent for our workforce here,” Vela said.

Vela gave an exclusive video interview to the Rio Grande Guardian International News Service following a recent RGV LEAD conference. Vela was a panelist at the event.

“I love the apprenticeship concept because one of the barriers remains financial hardship for folks and that (TWC program) is directly aimed at that. It’s financial incentives for the students and or the institutions that are employing the students as they’re going through the training,” Vela said.

As for the plan to bring in more Mexican nurses, Vela said:

“On the Mexican nurse side, we’ve been talking about this for a long time in health care. And there are some challenges associated with language barriers and those kinds of things. But I’m telling you, it’s time that we tried to do what we can.

“It would require an immigration fix to some degree on the visa side. But on the language side, that to me seems pretty easy to fix, right? You just establish classes that will help them and allow them to come in and take the necessary exams on our side. Getting that English proficiency to pass those those tests. 

“But, I love the thought and then think about the nurses from Mexico coming in environment such as ours, it would be plug and play, plug and play, right, culturally, Spanish-speaking, all those kinds of good things, well qualified, clinically qualified, etc.”

It was put to Vela that the educational standards for nurses in Mexico are very high.

Vela responded: “Standards are high in Mexico. We’ve effectively used visa programs with the Philippines in years past. Our government unfortunately did away with the visa program that we utilized for years, but a few years back. I think it’s time our government start looking at this more globally. And, quite honestly, create the parameters they need to ensure that the people coming in are are clinically sound and solid. That’s what we want, too, but if that’s the case, let’s go. There are so many talented people who want to come in and help us during this crisis and beyond to be honest with you.”

Asked about the shortage of healthcare workers, Vela said:

“When we talk about labor shortages in healthcare, obviously we’re referencing the physician shortage, the nursing shortage, the LVN shortage, the CNA shortage. But, we’re also talking about all of the other allied health professions and non-clinical support staff that we have within our hospital. And we’re seeing shortages across the board right now.”

Vela said “major credit and kudos” needs to go to the core staff at Valley Baptist who have stayed with the health system through thick and thin. “But now we need to recruit some some additional folks to help lessen the burden that they experienced,” he said.

Asked if the shortage of healthcare workers is tied directly to the COVID pandemic, Vela said:

“We were actually probably short to some degree part of the COVID but COVID just blew it out of the water, unfortunately. What we saw happening was a lot of nurses left because of COVID. A lot of healthcare personnel left because of COVID. Some left for higher paying jobs outside the Valley. Some are now completely burned out and so they’re just tired. Some decided to retire early, right? And so you combine all of that, all of those factors and dynamics, and so now we’re facing a shortage across the board. It literally takes an army to run and support a hospital. And so we’re talking about shortages across the board.” 

Vela said he was pleased with the discussions that took place during the RGV LEAD event. 

“I’m very confident coming out of this discussion today that we have state agencies, we have our educational, institutional, partners in play, and we have industry healthcare industry partners are all going to be joined at the table simultaneously to help solve this (healthcare worker shortage) problem.”

Vela said dealing with the shortage of healthcare workers is going to require some outside the box thinking. 

“We already have (been) to some degree. We’re growing our own LVN program, expanding that, extending that to our high schools. But we need to go even further than that, because the demand is so high, and the supply is just simply not keeping up with the demand.”

Access to healthcare

The Guardian also asked Vela about the upcoming legislative session. Could the next Legislature help hospitals address workforce shortages? Most definitely, Vela responded.

“I do think dollars earmarked for training and those kinds of things can go a long way down here. A lot of our jobs don’t require college degrees in our hospitals. So let’s emphasize those programs as well as those that require degrees with the support that we might need from the state.”

Vela’s other big ask of the Legislature – and he asks it every session – is that the body improves access to healthcare services.

“I would just, as I’ve done for multiple sessions now, urge the state to look at creating additional access points to healthcare in areas such as a Rio Grande Valley, where people are still prone to use our emergency departments as primary care offices because they don’t have access to care otherwise,” Vela said.

“Once somebody comes to receive that kind of care (in an emergency room), it’s exponentially more costly. But, a lot of the times they’ve gone without care for so long that they’re more acutely ill than they would have been had they had access to care. So call it what you want. Do you want to call it Medicaid expansion? I don’t care. But let us expand access to care in the best way we can in the state of Texas.”

Editor’s Note: The above comments were made in an exclusive video interview the Rio Grande Guardian International News Service. After the video aired, the Guardian received the following commentary from Linda Battles, regional vice president and Texas chancellor for Western Governors University:

Western Governors University

“New numbers show that the Rio Grande Valley is short 3,200 nurses, with that number rising daily. Nursing programs in Texas are an essential component to addressing this growing problem. 

“To meet this demand, nursing programs must understand the needs of potential students and look beyond the traditional pipelines to recruit people at all stages of their education and career. 

“As Texas’ second-largest nursing school, WGU Texas is responsible for addressing workforce issues, adapting to changing landscapes and evolving with our student populations. Western Governors University (WGU) Michael O. Leavitt School of Health received a 2021 Center Excellence designation from the National League for Nursing, and in 2020, WGU launched its first healthcare simulation center in the greater Houston area. 

“Our online nursing school is ranked as one of the nation’s top nursing programs, accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). Through nursing and other programs, we must do what we can to support nurses who are saving the lives of thousands of people by creating accessible paths of education, training qualified workers and filling workforce gaps — serving the public interest and our local Texas communities.”