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Texas is short thousands of workers at state health facilities

Austin State Hospital is undergoing renovations to add more psychiatric hospital beds for patients in need. But a Houston Chronicle reporter says so much more is needed to help Texans who need mental health care.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
State hospitals and state-supported living centers across Texas are short thousands of workers.

State hospitals and state-supported living centers are facing a staffing shortage worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has Texas health officials looking to fill about 3,000 positions.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission is trying to fill positions in 24 locations across the state, including some in Austin, El Paso, Corpus Christi, Richmond and San Antonio, offering hiring bonuses for certain positions at each site.

"Everybody is trying to get nurses, with COVID and everything else," said Scott Schalchlin, deputy executive commissioner for the agency's Health and Specialty Care System. "We wanted to really focus on how we can get attention drawn to the state-supported living centers and the state hospitals."

State hospitals provide inpatient psychiatric care for children and adults. State-supported living centers offer residential services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

There are certain roles Schalchlin said are crucial to regular health care service. Registered nurses can qualify for $5,000 hiring bonuses, while licensed vocational nurses could receive $3,500. HHSC is also offering hiring bonuses for psychiatric nursing assistants at state hospitals and direct support professionals at state-supported living centers.

But, he said, there are vacancies across the board at these 24-hour facilities, including areas such as housekeeping, food services and maintenance.

Though Schalchlin stopped short of calling the shortages a dire situation, he did say the nature of the pandemic meant there was more pressure to fill the roles and treat more Texans.

In the meantime, the agency has hired contract nurses to fill vacancies at state supported living centers — but staff are still stretched thin, Schalchlin said.

"We really want to have staff that are there all the time because the ones that we hire can develop relationships with the other staff, they develop relationships with the people we serve," he said. "You just get a higher quality of services from that rather than just having temporary nurses or temporary staff there."

Becky Fogel, The Texas Newsroom