Watch a Texas Tribune conversation on meeting the state’s health care workforce needs

Four Texas medical experts offered ideas on how the state — with some funding and creativity — could address a health care workforce shortage during a Texas Tribune event in Waco on Tuesday.

The hourlong discussion at Texas State Technical College’s Aerospace Center featured panelists Maria Darby, chief operating officer for Dwyer Workforce Development; Dr. Jackson Griggs, CEO of Waco Family Medicine; Darrel Spinks, executive director of the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council; and Andy Weaver, provost of Texas State Technical College's West Texas campuses.

The health care workforce shortage has plagued Texas's medical industry for several years. The shortages are especially acute in many counties along the Texas-Mexico border. The lack of medical personnel can lead to long trips and delayed checkups for many Texans.

A law passed this year establishes scholarships, grants, and loan repayment programs to help nursing students and faculty. Legislators also approved $4 billion for state behavioral health services over the next two years. That includes money to expand the state psychiatric hospital system and provide grants to local organizations.

However, the panelists who represent various parts of the medical community believe there are other things the state can do to help.

Stop the  bleeding

Texas Health and Human Services in 2023 began verifying the eligibility of people receiving Medicaid and CHIP benefits. About 2.1 million people were dropped at least temporarily as of late February — more than 1.3 million lost coverage because the state couldn’t confirm their eligibility.

Griggs said health institutions are losing millions in grants due to the state’s aggressive review, and millions of people can’t afford to see a medical professional because of it.

“We need to add pressure to where we are hemorrhaging,” Griggs said, suggesting the state better fund the Health and Human Services Commission to allow it to re-enroll those who lost their health insurance due to procedural reasons.

Primary care

Primary care doctors have been classified as the “de facto” mental health system across the nation due to the gaps in the behavioral health workforce. However, the funding for primary care hasn’t matched the amount of work the field is doing to support mental health, panelists said.

“Only 4% of the state’s health care budget goes to primary care. The national average is 5 to 7%, and it’s 14% overall in other nations with good health outcomes. That payment issue ties all these issues together,” Griggs said.

Spinks also suggested the state determine whether there is a way to bring back some of the health care workers who retired due to burnout during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“How do we stop the bleeding? We got to retain what we got,” he said. “You can’t produce enough providers to solve the backlog, and you can’t export because it’s a nationwide shortage, so you have to do better with what you have. How do we make better use of the resources we have now?”

Removing barriers to education

Darby’s organization has started to provide services like child care and transportation to help more students enter the health care workforce due to the time and money it takes to enter the field.

“We need to have the ability to connect with them and meet them where they are and address those needs while allowing them to continue their education,” she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a large number of older health care workers retiring from the field, leaving a relatively young workforce with no mentorship.

“Our health care workers are really struggling with that work-life balance. We need to develop that skill set before they go to work,” Weaver, provost of Texas State Technical College's West Texas campuses.

In response to a question about how to increase interest in health care among the younger generation, panelists suggested raising awareness of the industry at the high school level through immersive medical simulations or speakers.

“Education institutions need to have partnerships with the industry, and they need to work together to promote the field,” Weaver said. “At our institution, instead of just a tour, they can come in and do a caregiver simulation or an ambulance simulation … Sometimes you don’t know what you are interested in until you are in it.”

The conversation can be watched above.

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