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Is now the best time to build a new hospital?

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Paul Roth, left, chancellor of the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, and UNM interim President Chaouki Abdallah, right, answer questions about UNM’s new hospital proposal during a state Board of Finance meeting on Tuesday in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The board that essentially killed the University of New Mexico’s last bid to build a new hospital is raising questions about its latest hospital proposal – chief among them: Is now the right time?

With the future of U.S. health care laws in flux, members of the state Board of Finance on Tuesday expressed doubt about whether UNM should proceed with plans to build what it is calling a “modern medical facility” on land north of Lomas and east of University. The project would ultimately replace what UNM officials argue are out-of-date and inefficient adult care facilities at its existing hospital, located east of the proposed new site, while also providing much-needed additional capacity.

As currently envisioned, the multi-phase project would have 408 beds (48 of them for psychological treatment) and could cost an estimated $700 million.

UNM has focused its attention on the first phase: a 120-bed facility and medical office building that would total 372,000 square feet and cost an estimated $230 million to $250 million. UNM has not determined the best financing route but has enough in reserves to cover the cost.

It needs permission from its Board of Regents to hire an architect and draft construction documents, something it says would cost about $12 million. But board President Rob Doughty said the regents removed the request from their May meeting agenda so UNM could first present its proposal to the Board of Finance. The board, led by Gov. Susana Martinez, would have the final say before hospital construction could start.

The school took a proposal to build a new hospital to the board in 2012, but the board never held a vote on the project and thus prevented UNM from moving forward.

The board on Tuesday heard an “informational” presentation from a UNM leadership contingent that included interim President Chaouki Abdallah, Health Sciences Chancellor Paul Roth and UNM Hospitals CEO Steve McKernan. No vote was scheduled or taken.

Gov. Susana Martinez on Tuesday raised questions about the feasibility of the University of New Mexico’s proposed new hospital, given the uncertainty over the future of Medicaid. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

But some board members, including Martinez, showed skepticism. The three-hour discussion veered frequently into other areas, with the board repeatedly peppering UNM officials with questions about exactly how the hospital uses, and accounts for, the roughly $90 million in property taxes it gets from Bernalillo County mill levy collections each year. It even included talk of federal patient privacy laws and the substance abuse crisis.

But Medicaid – and possible cuts to the program under current Republican leadership – emerged as a recurring concern as it pertains to the hospital plan. About 40 percent of UNMH revenue comes from Medicaid reimbursements, and Martinez suggested it might be “prudent” to wait a year or two to get more clarity about the national picture. Board member Michael Brasher said he would hold off, while fellow member Del Archuleta asked whether pursuing such a project now could ultimately “embarrass” the state.

“Can you see a situation that we would regret this action?” Archuleta asked.

“Absolutely not,” Roth responded, adding that he actually views it as “almost irresponsible” for UNM to continue with a status quo that keeps it from meeting the needs of New Mexicans.

Paul Roth, chancellor of UNM’s Health Sciences Center, was among the leadership contingent that presented UNM’s latest hospital proposal to the New Mexico Board of Finance on Tuesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

In 2014, UNMH took in 5,300 patients from other New Mexico hospitals; that number jumped to 6,100 in the past 12 months, Roth said, thanks to a more efficient system that allows it to transfer out less-critical patients to places like Lovelace to make more room for cases that only UNM could handle. But greater need still exists, Roth said, noting that UNM did turn away 1,000 requested transfers in the past year – 25 percent of whom were critically ill or injured and either stayed in a facility that might not have the capacity to treat their condition or had to go to another place even farther away. UNM is the state’s only Level 1 trauma center and academic medical center, and it boasts some specialties and expertise some other New Mexico facilities do not.

“That is not the level of care any of us would want for our mother, or loved one or constituent. That is sub-standard care, and what I worry about, although I have no data to support it, is I think there were many cases in which either morbidity or mortality for citizens of the state of New Mexico were compromised, because they did not have access to the right level of care,” Roth said.

The governor fired back about making “a statement that strong without data,” and reiterated her concerns about proceeding without knowing how national health care changes might negatively impact hospital revenue.

“The devil is in the details,” she said.

In an interview after the meeting, Roth said health care is always changing and UNM could adjust its plans as necessary. It should wait no longer to pursue the project, he said.

It’s unclear when the UNM regents might hear the request to hire an architect. Doughty said late Tuesday that he was waiting to discuss the matter with Roth before deciding how to proceed.

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