A proposal to use some of New Mexico’s budget surplus to expand health care services in rural parts of the state could benefit existing hospitals, like Alta Vista Regional Hospital in Las Vegas, shown in this December file photo, that are seeking to expand their services. The bill passed its first assigned Senate committee Monday on a 7-1 vote. (Eddie Moore/Journal)
SANTA FE — A proposal to tap New Mexico’s revenue windfall to bolster health care services in rural parts of the state where residents frequently have to drive long distances to find a hospital or health care facility — if they can even find one — is on the move at the Roundhouse.
The Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee voted 7-1 on Monday to approve the measure, which Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has touted as a priority during this year’s 60-day legislative session.
“Expanding rural health care delivery not only benefits New Mexicans in rural communities,” Lujan Grisham said in a Monday statement. “It benefits every single New Mexican by increasing provider access statewide.”
The legislation could free up funding for projects like a proposed new inpatient behavioral health facility in Curry County, as Clovis Mayor Mike Morris said funding concerns loom as a potential stumbling block for the project that would serve residents in a five-county region.
“There is no inpatient facility in the area, so (currently) it’s a drive, sometimes as far as El Paso,” said Morris, who traveled to Santa Fe to speak with lawmakers Monday about the facility that he said could also benefit service members at Cannon Air Force Base and their family members.
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“If we don’t lift up New Mexicans who need some help … how will we ever have a strong workforce?” Morris also said in an interview.
The legislation, Senate Bill 7, is similar to a previous measure that stalled during last year’s session.
It would be appropriate $200 million in state funds to help defer the costs related to building new health care clinics — or hospitals — in rural parts of the state and expanding services for existing health care facilities.
Under the definition of the bill, only hospitals in counties with fewer than 100,000 people could qualify for the money, which would be issued in the form of grants by the state Human Services Department.
That means at least five New Mexico counties would be ineligible — Bernalillo, Doña Ana, Santa Fe, Sandoval and San Juan counties — that, combined, make up nearly two-thirds of the state’s population.
Troy Clark, the president and CEO of the New Mexico Hospital Association, said after Monday’s hearing the funding would not be available directly for hospital land acquisition and construction costs, but could be used to offset the costs of staffing and other operational expenses while a new one facility is ramping up.
He also said bill backers are hopeful there would be demand to use the funding to expand behavioral health and maternal care services in particular.
But he acknowledged labor shortages could make it difficult for some hospitals to expand, despite recent state efforts to bolster the state’s medical provider pipeline.
“I really think that’s the issue that will determine how widely this is tapped,” Clark told the Journal.
Meanwhile, Sen. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, the only senator who voted against the bill during Monday’s hearing, questioned bill backers about whether funding distributed under the bill could be used for abortion services.
But Kari Armijo, the interim acting secretary of the Human Services Department, sought to dispel the concern, saying, “That’s not the intention of the bill.”
New Mexico has long struggled to recruit health professionals to clinics and hospitals in rural parts of the state.
During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, some rural hospitals also saw financial losses due to elective surgeries and other procedures being put on hold in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.
At least five New Mexico counties currently did not have a hospital located within their boundaries as of 2019, according to a state rural health care plan, while several other largely rural counties had hospitals that offer only limited services.
Christina Campos, administrator of the Guadalupe County Hospital in Santa Rosa, said it’s not unusual for some New Mexico residents to have to drive more than an hour to reach the nearest hospital.
She said the proposed funding infusion would support rural start-up hospitals while they get their finances in order.
“All New Mexicans deserve access to quality hospital and emergency services regardless of where we choose to live, urban or rural communities,” Campos added. “This is one important step toward achieving that goal.”
The bill now advances to the Senate Finance Committee — its last assigned panel before reaching the full Senate.