Makalya Grijalva | News-Bulletin photo
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham talks to a crowd in Belen prior to signing legislation that allocates $50 million to build a hospital in Belen. The Valencia County Commission is still awaiting the completion of a feasibility study, and will then choose a provider, who will be tasked to choose a location for the hospital.

Belen — The dream of one day having a hospital in Valencia County is one step closer as New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed legislation Tuesday allocating $50 million for the construction of an acute care hospital.

The signing ceremony, which was held at the Presbyterian Clinic in Belen, the site of the last hospital in Valencia County, was attended by local and state dignitaries, all elated about the funding.

“I’m incredibly excited, because this is what delivering looks like,” Lujan Grisham said Tuesday. “It should be about a community; it should not be about politics. It should be about a community coming together and figuring out how we serve the community … It is a reflection that the only way we strengthen the state is to deal with the issues for the most vulnerable among us and we are creating a health care delivery pipeline.”

In her speech ahead of the bill signing, Lujan Grisham said she hopes to eventually use the path to constructing a hospital in Valencia County as a blueprint to expand acute care to other rural areas of the state with limited access to medical services.

“We could be the first state in the country … we can show that it’s viable,” she said. “That means that New Mexico, again, can lead the nation in real-rural health care delivery and change those models of care forever.”

New Mexico legislators approved House Bill 2 during the recent special session, which makes one-time investments, such as for the hospital in Valencia County, broadband, outdoor recreation grants, tourism marketing, electric vehicle charging stations, state park facilities, housing and more. New Mexico received $504.5 million under the federal American Rescue Plan Act that gives new life to the hospital project.

Lujan Grisham entered the decade-plus discussion and debate about a county medical facility in late July, when she hosted an invite-only meeting at the Belen Public Library.

The meeting was attended by elected officials from the city of Belen and the county commission, state senators and representatives, as well as representatives from the New Mexico Hospital Association, the New Mexico State Medicaid office, Presbyterian Healthcare and a Santa Rosa hospital and a handful of residents.

In early October, Valencia County commissioners amended their Infrastructure Capital Improvement Plan to add a request for $50 million to plan, design and construct a hospital/24-hour emergency health care facility. Lujan Grisham said at the time the facility was one of her top priorities and made a commitment to allocate funding from the billions in federal COVID-support funds that have recently flowed into the state.

“We know that we have an extreme need for medical care in Valencia County, even along the way into northern Socorro County there are a lot of folks who end up heading up to Albuquerque or down to Socorro for the medical care that they need. That is unacceptable,” Belen Mayor Jerah Cordova told the News-Bulletin ahead of the signing. “We know that emergencies exist and in an emergency you have to move quick to save lives, and that’s what this does is helps us save lives.”

Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca (R-Belen) was one of two senators who successfully sued the governor, arguing Lujan Grisham could not spend the federal funding without legislative approval. The Supreme Court ultimately sided with the lawmakers.

“I am eager to see this legislation through to the finish line. The recent lawsuit filed by myself and Senator Jacob Candelaria (I-Albuquerque) resulted in the return of ARPA funds being delivered back to the hands of New Mexicans,” Baca said in a statement. “Now we have a real shot at delivering a much needed hospital in Valencia County to serve all of south central New Mexico because the Legislature knows the needs of the community. Following the veto of the hospital bill last year, I am happy to see that we finally have the support of the governor and we can now bring proper health care to Valencia County.”

While the state allocated $50 million for construction of a hospital, Valencia County taxpayers have footed the bill for the pending operation and maintenance of a hospital facility by way of a mill levy that was collected from 2007 to 2014. So far, it has amassed more than $26.6 million in an interest-bearing account at Bank of the West.

“We’re excited to bring back the people’s money to the people for health care they need, they deserve and that they signed up for almost 15 years ago,” Baca told the News-Bulletin. “… on a more home-level, maybe we’ll have more children being born here in Belen again. I was born here myself and I’m very proud of that. People are born here, live here and eventually rest in peace here, and we’re missing a part of that puzzle.”

Valencia County Commission Chairman Gerald Saiz said the commission plans to “hit the ground running” in moving the hospital project forward. There is already a draft request for proposals, which the commission will continue to work on and modify, however it still may be a while before the next steps are officially taken.

“I want to make sure that we address as many obstacles that we could have in the process,” Saiz said. “I want to do those up-front and before we have an actual RFP that is going out for publication. I’ll be taking and sharing a lot of the information that I will get from the community members and partners, so that stuff is going to come into play.”

Jon Huddy, president of Huddy HealthCare Solutions, the consultant working with Kulik Strategic Advisors Inc., of Dawsonville, Ga. on the feasibility study, recently updated the Valencia County Commission on their findings. They are evaluating information to help determine the feasibility of three different types of facilities in Valencia County — a freestanding emergency department, a destination ambulatory center and a micro-hospital.

Once the feasibility study is finished, the county will issue a request for proposal to find a provider, and the location of the facility will also be left up to the provider.

“This is, for lack of a better term, the ace-in the hole,” Saiz said about the state allocation. “It’s just really, really important that we have this funding moving forward because there is a challenge in rural health care and the funding is going to help a potential provider overcome some of the challenges. For Valencia County, this is a great problem to have.”

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Makayla Grijalva was born and raised in Las Cruces. She is a 2020 graduate of The University of New Mexico, where she studied multimedia journalism, political science and history. She covers the village of Los Lunas, Los Lunas Schools, SODA and the town of Peralta.

Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.