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County anticipates health care changes

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Sandoval County’s community services division is preparing for a big transition later this year when the federal Affordable Care Act kicks in.

That’s according to Peggy Cote, the county’s community services director. She said she thinks the new laws will help her department address issues among the county’s medically underserved, but she knows there will be a learning curve as well.

“There are a lot of pieces to this,” she said.

But, at this point, she said she doesn’t know how this new system is going to look.

Cote’s department is charged with providing access to comprehensive health and social services, which it does through a variety of means. That will, ultimately, include care provided through the Affordable Care Act, also referred to — even by the President — as “Obamacare.”

“It’s going to be difficult in every state. My staff and I look at this and we say it’s going to be an interesting year and a challenging year,” she said. “Hopefully, we’ll end up with a healthier state.”

There is a good track record for other state and federally run programs, such as Medicaid and Medicare, she said. But really, when her department looks at Obamacare, they are staring into a sea of unknowns.

In the coming months, funding will go from the federal government to the state level, and from there it will be dispersed to the counties and other government agencies. Around that time, those agencies will get their marching orders.

“We don’t know how this will happen. That’s the challenge,” she said.

One thing that can be said with certainty is that departments like Cote’s will get a lot busier. A study sponsored by the Society of Actuaries gives some indication of the number of people who will be looking for healthcare services in the coming years.

According to the study, the number of insured New Mexicans will go from about 43,000 to 173,700 by the middle of 2014.

While those numbers are not a direct indication of what Cote’s office will be dealing with, part of the overall package is sure to include some sort of funding for indigent or low-income households.

And that’s one of the services Cote and her department already administer for the county. Each year, an average of roughly $2 million in gross receipts taxes goes to Sandoval County Health Care Assistance Program, also known as the indigent fund.

The New Mexico Department of Human Services takes about half that money and puts the money into Medicaid funding, Cote said. The idea was to bump up the amount of money paid out toward Medicaid.

In fiscal year 2012, New Mexico took in $2.26 for every Medicaid dollar it spent. Cote said she understands that the state wants to bring in more federal money by funneling the funds towards Medicaid, but she thinks her department could make better use of the money.

She said the indigent fund has been a valuable safety net for people from Sandoval County. And roughly half of the folks she sees come from Rio Rancho, she said.

“There are poor people everywhere,” she said.

And, after a round of layoffs at Intel a few years ago, she said she met some truly stunned individuals who had very few options other than the indigent fund. That’s because, on paper, their families appeared to be doing well for the year, she said, but they were left without a steady source of income.

“You’d have somebody sitting before you, devastated that they would ever have to do that,” she said.

Cote thinks that the new program will help people who find themselves without insurance get preventative care, she said. And that will not only make everyone a little bit healthier, but it may just save some money.

“It’s better to treat a cold than pneumonia,” she said.

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