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Gov. signs bill to certify, pay community health workers

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Gov. Susana Martinez said she hopes a bill she signed into law Sunday fortifies New Mexico’s community health workers and attract more to the understaffed field.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces and Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort, R-Sandia Park, creates a voluntary, statewide certification program for community health workers that makes them eligible for Medicaid reimbursements under the new state health care exchange. The governor signed the bill at the Midtown Public Health Office in Albuquerque.

Bender said this means that community health workers – who often work in low-income communities by doing health screenings and referring patients – won’t have to rely on hospitals or organizations to hire them, but can be paid directly by the state for their work.

“These individuals will work without pay because they want to help their communities, they will do it no matter what,” said Venice Ceballos, a longtime health worker who now coordinates those type of programs. “Once you’re known in the community as a community health worker, you get asked for services; I’m always going to be one. We have to give back.”

Martinez said she hopes the bill will attract more health workers to the field, especially because of the state’s newly expanded health care program mandated by the federal government.

“It wouldn’t make sense to expand the program without also expanding access,” Martinez said during a round-table discussion with five community health care workers, including Ceballos, before the bill-signing.

“I think it provides for better recruitment, more recruitment for people who are on the ground in the homes. We’re very short on health care providers and we need them of all stripes, from those who go knocking on doors to those that are in hospitals, those that are nurse practitioners … we’re short.”

Medicaid is expected to enroll about 170,000 additional New Mexicans as the plan expands over the next few years, and 32 of the state’s 33 counties already suffer from a shortage of health care professionals, according to Journal archives. The bill charges the Department of Health with creating the certification program. A $500,000 appropriation will fund the department’s effort, according to a Governor’s Office spokesman.

On Sunday the governor signed another health-related bill that gives school nurses the authority to administer asthma and allergy medications even if the student has not been prescribed that medicine. Martinez said 25 percent of life-threatening allergic reactions first happen at school, so the bill will protect students in such emergency situations.

Martinez also signed a bill Saturday that mandates background checks be done for all paramedics and emergency medical service workers in the state.

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