School of public health funding postponed until next month

Senate committee blocks a massive health care package during the special session; $335 million overhaul likely to return in the new year

By: - December 12, 2021 3:08 pm

Dr. Tracie Collins, dean of the UNM College of Population Health and former NM health secretary, testified as an expert witness on Saturday, Dec. 11, for a proposal to use federal pandemic relief money to rebuild New Mexico’s behavioral health system and to establish a school of public health at UNM. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

A proposal to use $335 million in federal pandemic aid to rebuild New Mexico’s behavioral health system and establish a school of public health to deal with pandemics won’t make it through the special session. The Senate Finance Committee voted against the measure Saturday, Dec. 11, with the understanding that it will likely come back as part of the regular session in January. 

The bill’s sponsors, Democratic Sens. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, Joseph Cervantes and Martin Hickey, said it would have been “transformative” to the state’s health system.

Ortiz y Pino said the measure would change the way the state deals with public health, behavioral health, nursing education and cancer treatment.

The state would have spent a significant chunk of the $1.1 billion in federal coronavirus relief funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act that legislators have to allocate.

Understanding disease spread

There is no school of public health in the state, said Dr. Tracie Collins, dean of the UNM College of Population Health and former New Mexico health secretary.

“We have to address health inequities early in the process,” she told the committee. “We shouldn’t wait for a pandemic to realize what health inequities exist in our state.”

The New Mexico Senate Finance Committee met on the Senate Floor during the pandemic on the evening of Saturday, Dec. 11. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

She said it is imperative for state officials to increase prevention, effectiveness, and public health services to reduce chronic diseases like diabetes, cardiac disease, cancer, orthopedic problems, mental illness and addiction.

There is also a key need for epidemiology of illness patterns, new infectious diseases, new illnesses, violence and disaster, she said.

To create a school of public health, UNM needs a dedicated building, and there is no way to get that without state support, she said. The bill would have also helped UNM get more faculty to work in the school, she said.

UNM and New Mexico State University are creating a cooperative Ph.D program in health equity sciences, Collins said, expected to launch in fall 2022, and a school of public health would help that program. 

“Having this school would allow us to have additional public health programs in partnership with NMSU,” Collins said.

Hickey said health officials are doing the best they can, but the state doesn’t have the data needed to “get beyond the symptoms and see what the diseases are that we need to attack, and where to improve in this state” and a school of public health would begin that process.

“We really could do something that could fundamentally change the state of New Mexico for the much, much better,” he said.

Premature spending

But the committee voted 6-1 to table the bill with the idea that it will be considered during the regular session in January. Opponents said it would be premature to pass the bill without more time to consider what the money would pay for.

“I don’t see anything wrong here, except timing,” said Sen. William Sharer (R-Farmington). He said the bill would be wise to pass during the regular session in January.

Lawmakers to take swing at spending $470 million

Cervantes said lawmakers were told a week before the session that they would be considering spending the ARPA money. He said they would have liked to have more time to think about how to spend it, and they were given no parameters on how to spend it.

“The iron was hot, so we struck,” said Ortiz y Pino.

Given the disastrous effects of the pandemic, Cervantes said the money should go toward health care. COVID-19 will not be the last major health challenge in the future, he said.

Sen. Pat Woods (R-Broadview) said he didn’t think the Legislature needs to act on it right now.

“I think we need to bring it forward in a little more developed situation,” he said.

Funding breakdown

Since the legislation didn’t pass but will likely be considered in January, the measure provides an early look at how the money may be divided.

  • $100 million behavioral health, allowing the interagency behavioral health purchasing collaborative to develop and expand behavioral health services statewide.
  • $50 million to a public health school at the UNM Health Sciences Center. $20 million for salaries and operating expenses at the school. $5 million to develop a program for the school.
  • $40 million for equipment to provide proton therapy for the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center.
  • $10 million for perinatal care services through the Department of Health.
  • $10 million to obstetric care in Las Vegas in San Miguel County and Gallup in McKinley County through a DOH collaboration with UNM Health Sciences Center.

Another $100 million would go through the higher education development enhancement fund, which is meant for “the resolution of critical state issues and the advancement of the welfare of state citizens.

Education spending through the fund

  • $50 million to expanding behavioral health faculty through the higher education program development enhancement fund.
  • $50 million to expanding nursing faculty through the higher education program development enhancement fund.

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.