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Editorial: NM’s hospitals need a long-term Rx for financial solvency

Six years ago, the Journal published a story with the headline “N.M.’s rural hospitals running on life support.” A front-page story on The Sunday Journal had an almost identical headline. The point is not that our headline writers lack creativity – it’s the state’s rural hospitals have been struggling financially for years, long before the coronavirus pandemic. And now, unable to perform elective surgeries, routine tests and outpatient procedures, they are hemorrhaging money.

And while it’s politically popular for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to criticize hospitals for cuts they have announced in recent days, it’s a lot harder to keep all your staff at the ready and balance your budget when little to no money has been coming in for three weeks and there’s no relief in sight.

Outpatient procedures and elective surgeries are the bread and butter of rural hospitals, says Tanya Carroccio, chief quality officer at Gila Regional Medical Center in Silver City. But a March 25 public health order intended to ensure adequate hospital beds, supplies and equipment to treat COVID-19 patients banned such “nonessential” procedures. Richard Stokes, interim CEO and CFO at Gila Regional, says his hospital has seen a 65% drop in diagnostic services such as endoscopies and colonoscopies. David Ward, CEO of Nor-Lea hospital in Lovington, told Journal investigative reporter Colleen Heild for Sunday’s story that Nor-Lea has seen a 57% drop in patient volume after suspending its orthopedics, nephrology and urology specialty outpatient clinics.

Even the state’s larger hospitals have hit the breaking point. Lovelace Health System said Tuesday about 630 employees will see their hours or pay cut or be furloughed. Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe is placing 300 employees — about 14% of its associates — on temporary leave. Both Memorial Medical Center and Mountain View Regional Medical Center in Las Cruces are cutting back on staff.

House Republican leader Jim Townsend told the Journal recently Artesia General Hospital, where the state’s first COVID-19 fatality occurred, is losing around $150,000 a day. The parent company for Mimbres Memorial Hospital filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy restructuring last week but pledged to keep the 25-bed Deming hospital open for business. Jeff Dye, president of the New Mexico Hospital Association, says complying with the public health order is “absolutely” the right thing to do, but it’s devastating hospitals. The association estimates the loss to hospitals statewide could hit $200 million a month unless emergency funds can be tapped.

Rural hospitals are essential in New Mexico, geographically the fifth largest state in the nation. Many cities only have one. We can’t afford to lose any of them. Closing the only hospital in town would be akin to closing the only fire station. And publicly scolding them for not simply powering through financial catastrophe is unfair.

Several House Republicans sent a letter to Lujan Grisham this week asking for an adjustment in the emergency order to allow rural hospitals to resume dialysis visits, cancer treatment, physical therapy and other delayed care. Townsend said the blanket order banning nonessential medical services doesn’t work for all communities. It also doesn’t work for patients who want a serious, even life-threatening, condition diagnosed safely and sooner rather than later.

A working plan between hospitals and the Department of Health is desperately needed – during the pandemic and beyond. Too many have been on life support too long, struggling to provide essential health care services. Operating one crisis away from insolvency isn’t healthy for anyone.

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.