The New Mexico Department of Health has given Valencia County commissioners some measured guidance on the decade-plus delayed county hospital project.
At the end of last year, the commissioners directed staff to reach out to DOH to clarify whether a hospital in the county could operate under the license of a provider in another location, such as Albuquerque.
At the Wednesday, June 17, Valencia County Commission meeting, county attorney Dave Pato informed the commission that correspondence from DOH indicated the department does indeed have the “authority to issue a remote license to a 24-hour urgent and emergency care center licensed under an existing acute care facility, and could certainly do so for this purpose.”
With the indication that DOH would be willing to issue a license for a remote facility, the commissioners voted unanimously to move forward with a new feasibility study for the project.
Pato said the response from DOH was largely thanks to the persistence of Kayla Laywell, field representative for U.S. Congressional District 2 Rep. Xochitl Torres Small.
“I really have to thank Kayla for pushing for this and helping get an answer in the middle of a pandemic,” Pato said.
The question of whether a health care facility in the county could operate under a remote license from a provider located elsewhere was raised in May 2019 by Presbyterian Healthcare Services. At that time, the county had issued its most recent request for proposals for a hospital/24-hour emergency health care facility for the county.
PHS Chief Operating Officer Clay Holderman replied to the RFP with a letter, saying that while Presbyterian had “significant concerns” about long-term sustainability of a hospital, the company felt a 24-hour urgent and emergency care center, licensed as a remote location of an acute care hospital, would be viable.
“A remote location would meet requirements for the disbursement of mill levy funds under the (state) Hospital Funding Act, as it would be under the license of an acute care hospital,” Holderman wrote last year.
The 2019 RFP received no response from providers, so in an effort to move things forward, the commissioners asked The University of New Mexico Hospital if it would be willing to collaborate on the project.
After a meeting with UNM Hospital staff, the county was advised the project’s biggest problem was the lack of a current feasibility study.
The last hospital feasibility study was done for the city of Belen in 2012 for a location on Christopher Road owned by the city.
The study, done by Ameris Management Systems, had begun earlier that year in partnership with the now defunct nonprofit Valencia Health Commons, which had hired Ameris to plan, develop, build and manage a hospital on 63 acres just east of N.M. 47 on Manzano Expressway in what is now the city of Rio Communities.
Valencia County Manager Danny Monette said the Legislature had appropriated $20,000 for the study in the legislative session held earlier this year, but with the recent drop in state revenues due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, it was unclear whether that money would still be available after a special session to reassess the state budget.
Commission Chairman Jhonathan Aragon noted even if the Legislature did pull back the appropriation, the county had allocated the full $50,000 needed in its own budget.
“If we don’t get the funding (from the state), I think the board and the rest of the county is ready to move forward and clear the road blocks,” Aragon said.
The Legislature began a short special session on Thursday, June 18, with the primary intent to shore up next year’s state budget, which begins July 1.
“We want an independent feasibility study done,” Pato said in a phone interview on Thursday, June 18. “We will be seeking comments from Presbyterian and Lovelace on the scope of work for the study, as well as local providers, so we can be sure to include the areas they are most concerned about in the study.”
Unlike previous feasibility studies for a hospital, this one won’t be tied to a specific site.
“Once we get feedback, issue the RFP and get the feasibility study, providers will have the information they need to put together their best offer,” Pato said. “We hope to have multiple providers so we have some competition to drive a good contract.”
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.