NM lawmakers launch another push for school of public health - Albuquerque Journal

NM lawmakers launch another push for school of public health

Sen. Martin Hickey, D-Albuquerque, talks with Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, about a proposal for a school of public health. The proposal calls for $50 million and wasn’t included in the initial state spending package. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A handful of Democratic state senators – including three powerful committee chairmen and a physician – are pushing for New Mexico to tap into its flood of federal stimulus cash to establish a school of public health.

A similar proposal failed to advance in last month’s special session, but a slimmed-down version resurfaced last week as lawmakers began a 30-day session expected to focus on budget and tax legislation.

Supporters say a school of public health would expand New Mexico’s access to research funding and ensure policymakers have the data necessary to make wise spending decisions. New Mexico is one of just a few states without such a school.

“This is the one transformational act that this Legislature could take for health in New Mexico,” state Sen. Martin Hickey, D-Albuquerque, said in an interview.

The $75 million proposal, however, faces a challenging path to approval. It wasn’t included in the initial state spending package now being vetted by the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, a key budget-writing panel.

But the legislation, Senate Bill 119, also has influential supporters. The sponsors include Hickey, a physician and former health care executive, and three committee leaders in the Senate: Gerald Ortiz y Pino of Albuquerque, Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces and George Muñoz of Gallup, all Democrats.

They are asking Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, also a Democrat, to support the bill and for the funding to be added into the state budget.

Ortiz y Pino said lawmakers are forced to make too many health care spending decisions based on “gut instinct” rather than hard data on what works and what doesn’t – a problem the legislation would address.

“The point of having a school of public health,” he said, “is to try to refocus our emphasis in the whole health care system from waiting until people get sick and treating the heck out of it to preventing them from getting sick in the first place.”

Poor health outcomes

The proposed school would be a joint effort of the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University, but located at UNM.

Hickey said New Mexico is particularly well positioned to draw research funding for public health because of its small but diverse population and poor health outcomes, rooted in poverty.

He envisions using the initial $75 million state investment as startup money, with ongoing operations later supported largely by private and federal funds.

“It would draw a huge amount of money,” Hickey said.

The state, he said, has an expert with practical experience building a school of public health – Dr. Douglas Ziedonis, executive vice president for UNM health sciences and CEO of the UNM Health System – to draw on.

Ziedonis helped establish such a school at the University of California, San Diego.

In a written statement, he said New Mexico is a promising location for a school of public health and that it would build on UNM’s research strength in other areas, such as health equity and addiction.

The legislative requests “come at a particularly important time, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the world how critical public health expertise can be in a crisis,” Ziedonis said. “By graduating students trained in public health and population health – who are equipped with first-hand knowledge of our state’s unique health care challenges – we will provide New Mexico with a vital health care resource in both the private and public sector.”

UNM is now issuing about 25 master’s degrees in public health a year, a figure supporters say would sharply increase in coming years under the legislation.

The proposal calls for spending $50 million to build a school of public health at the UNM Health Sciences Center. It would also make $20 million available to UNM and $5 million to NMSU for operating costs and program development.

Unallocated cash

Funds for the proposed school would have to be incorporated into the broader spending package lawmakers are working on.

New Mexico has about $724 million in unallocated federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, the source of money eyed by supporters of the school.

Neither the governor’s nor the Legislative Finance Committee’s initial budget plans announced last month included specific funding for a school of public health.

There’s still time, however, for the idea to make it into the budget. The state budget legislation, House Bill 2, is in its first committee and will be a focus of debate and amendments throughout the 30-day session, which ends Feb. 17.

Sen. Crystal Diamond, an Elephant Butte Republican and member of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, described the school of public health as a “much-needed investment” at a critical time in the pandemic.

“Moving forward, we need more data-driven policies and independent analysis without the politics,” Diamond said in a written statement. “I hope this hefty investment in our state’s flagship universities will put us on track to better address the public health needs of all New Mexicans.”

In a special session last month, a school of public health was proposed as part of a broader $335 million plan to invest in public health infrastructure.

Members of the Senate Finance Committee rejected the proposal, saying they needed more time to vet the idea.

Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said Friday the Governor’s Office is reviewing the proposal.

“Certainly the pandemic has taught us (and continues to teach us) that we need more investments in public health,” Sackett said.

Journal staff writer Stephen Hamway contributed to this article.

 

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