VEGUITA—Less than 15 months after its opening, the Veguita Health Care Clinic in northern Socorro County has closed its doors.
The clinic has been closed since June 30 due to a lack of funding from the county and the expiration of a contract.
A professional service agreement between Socorro County and Presbyterian Medical Services — the service provider for the Veguita Health Center — was signed in March of 2019. The agreement was set to renew annually unless terminated by either the county or PMS.
During its June 23 regular meeting, the Socorro County Commission voted 3-2 in favor of discontinuing that contract as of the end of June.
The original brain child of local resident Leo Mendoza, the realization of opening the clinic took 18 years to come to fruition. Eventually backed by $500,000 of Community Development Block Grant funding from the Department of Finance Authority and an additional $205,000 from Socorro County, the center opened in April of 2019.
“It’s a shame the clinic had to close in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic,” Mendoza said. “A lot of people stopped by my house asking what they could do. This country is in terrible trouble from the top to the bottom.”
Mendoza, who, along with others, successfully sought funding for the construction of the facility, said a lot of people worked hard to make it possible.
“This is what the people wanted,” he said. “We worked with the politicians to make this a reality. This was and still is a needed facility for the people of the area. It’s just very sad.”
In 2013, Socorro County put out a request for proposal seeking a provider to operate and construct the health center, which is required by the New Mexico State Department of Health for health clinic construction projects.
Presbyterian Medical Services responded to the RFP, and a contract was signed between PMS and the county which provided $70,000 a year from the county for care of indigent patients.
That contract was terminated in 2017. According to a letter from PMS Western Director Genevieve Robran dated June 19 of this year, addressed to Socorro County Manager Michael Hawkes, those funds were never used, since the health center had not yet been constructed at that time.
In her letter, Robran also states the contract between PMS and the county was never put back out to RFP, and a subsequent contract for county funding was signed at some point for the amount of $59,999.99 annually.
Since the center opened in April 2019, Socorro County, which owns the building, has paid between $82,000 to $84,000 total to help keep the center operational, which in addition to the $59,999.99, includes utilities, maintenance, insurance and security.
At the June 23 Socorro County Commission meeting, board members asked PMS administrator Paul Silva if it were possible to operate the health center one day per week, instead of the two days it has been operating.
“There is a bigger need there,” Silva said. “We have Boys Ranch, and just other people that come in as a walk-in. There will always be a need there. To operate it one day a week is better than nothing, but it depends on the funding.”
Robran, who attending that meeting via telephone, said PMS simply cannot continue operating under the current financial agreement at one day per week without incurring significant financial losses.
“I really would hate to cut back to one day a week because it makes it harder to establish a patient base. When people need health care, they need health care. When your baby is sick you don’t want to wait until Monday or Wednesday or whenever the provider is there,” she told the commission. “The more days we can be there the better, but we haven’t been there long to know if the clinic can stand on its own legs.”
In relation to the financial status of Veguita Health Center Robran also fielded questions about the financial situation of the Magdalena Health Clinic, which has been in operation for 17 years. At its inception, Robran said the Magdalena clinic was originally supported by $120,000 a year in state funding, but that funding has decreased in past years.
While that clinic has had 17 years to build a client base, Veguita’s health center hasn’t yet had a similar opportunity.
“I hate to start cutting back now because we haven’t been there long enough,” Robran said in reference to Veguita. “It took us so long to open. When we first opened people were just kind of figuring it out. I’m basing my projections on the first five months of this year because we’ve had a good base under us. I would love to think that at some point in time (Veguita) can hold its own.”
In an effort to make the clinic financial viable, Robran felt PMS could bring in bring additional services to the Veguita clinic to help increase revenue, at no extra cost to the county, which could possibly be provided by Medicaid and Medicare funds to offset the sliding costs for those with no insurance.
She added that originally PMS didn’t necessarily want to add a fifth health care clinic to it’s system in Socorro County, but that the county originally came to them.
“We went into this agreement in good faith. A lot of these clinics, the type they are … we’re a non-profit. Most of our clinics are subsidized in some way. We’re very grateful. We wanted to be a good community partner,” she told the commission. “It would break my heart to say we can’t manage it for you but we have to protect our business as well.”
While some board members expressed some reticence to close the center, due to COVID-19 the funds simply aren’t there in the short run.
After a motion was made to fund the Veguita clinic for six months at a cost to the county of roughly $41,000, Hawkes made the point that county gross receipts tax loss during the pandemic is upwards of $125,000 per month.
“I don’t know what the state and the county wants to keep in reserve. There are some funds that would allow us to move along at this pace. We might be revisiting this same issue in October but we might be in dire straits,” Hawkes told the board. “$40,000 won’t make that much of a difference. $200,000 will. You’re really pushing money down the road. Everybody’s hands are up in the air.”
Three days after the commission made its decision to end the contract with PMS, Silva released a letter to the health provider’s constituents.
“It is with much sadness that I am writing to advise you that the Veguita Health Center will be closing on June 30, 2020,” Silva wrote.
“These are extremely difficult financial times for everyone and the Socorro County Commission made the decision not to continue the agreement with PMS due to a budget shortfall at their June 23, 2020, meeting.”
Silva wrote that clients could continue services with their PMS provider at another location, or could transfer to another provider.
Socorro County attorney Adren Nance told the commission via phone that it could request an RFP to secure another provider at the Veguita location and a motion was heard, seconded and approved by the commission to put out an RFP.
(News-Bulletin editor Clara Garcia contributed to this report.)