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Editorial: UNM-VA partnership is the right prescription

It is unacceptable, of course, that the Veterans Affairs hospital in Albuquerque doesn’t have a single oncologist on staff after the resignation of its only cancer doctor in December.

After all, thousands of veterans in New Mexico depend on the VA for their health care, and it’s something we as a nation owe them for their service. We made them a collective promise, and we need to keep it.

But there are silver linings to this cloud. Albuquerque VA chief of staff Dr. James Goff said that since “the loss of our oncologist, we’ve referred 173 patients for care in the community,” with 120 of them taken on by the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center in Albuquerque. Dr. Cheryl Willman, CEO of the center, said the center’s 18 oncologists were already busy but that the transition for the new VA patients has been a smooth one. “We did have the capacity to absorb those VA patients and were happy to do so,” she said.

While we can lament the VA’s shortcomings in providing needed care – and this is a system nationwide that has struggled to do so and at one point even created “ghost lists” to make it look like care was being timely delivered when it wasn’t – it should be reassuring to veterans that they will have access to high-quality cancer treatment through UNM and other providers.

New Mexico struggles in general with having enough health care providers, so it’s not surprising the VA here would have trouble attracting specialists in areas such as oncology. It’s difficult to recruit to a rural state like New Mexico – even to its largest city. “There are plenty of oncologists in Boston and New York City,” said Dr. Richard Lauer, chief medical officer at the UNM Cancer Center. “It’s when you get outside the major cities, that’s when it becomes a problem.”

And that brings us to the second silver lining in this story.

Willman said the UNM Cancer Center and the VA – which already worked closely together, with the VA sending patients in need of radiation therapy or highly specialized cancer surgery to UNM and medical students seeing VA patients – are teaming up to jointly hire physicians in what they hope will give them an advantage over the competition.

“We are looking at true joint recruitments because I think that would provide the best program and integrated care,” Willman said.

As we grapple with a reality that includes an aging population that’s living longer than ever and the fact that about 20 percent of the oncologists in New Mexico are 64 or older, this kind of partnership is important. In fact, you could say it’s exactly the right kind of medicine.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.