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Editorial: Health worker training proposal has promise

New Mexico geographically is the fifth largest state in the United States, and its mountainous, largely rural nature already presents a huge challenge for the delivery of health care services.

With expansion of Medicaid expected to add an estimated 170,000 more people to the rolls of the health care program that serves low-income children and disabled and elderly clients – and a chronic shortage of physicians and nurses – that challenge will become even more exacerbated. Thirty-two of the state’s 33 counties are federally designated as having a shortage of health care professionals.

Gov. Susana Martinez is promoting a plan to take some of the pressure off professional providers. The governor proposes creating a voluntary statewide certification program for community health workers that would allow them to be eligible for Medicaid reimbursement under a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services rule that goes into effect in January.

Although some details are still being formulated, the program, under the state Department of Health, likely would consist of training sessions and a final exam. It might be offered statewide, online and possibly through community colleges. It also could provide a pathway for community health workers to start climbing the health care career ladder. It would require legislative approval and a $500,000 appropriation.

There are about 800 community health workers in New Mexico, including those known as promotoras. Many visit patients in their homes or in community centers. Some work with doctors in clinics. They can do health screenings, educate patients and help translate doctor’s orders or medical information to patients who need that services. They do not provide direct medical services.

But as community members, familiar with the unique cultural practices or languages of their communities, they might be able to establish more comfortable relationships with patients than doctors could.

In today’s confusing health care world, more training and standardization of information and qualifications puts everyone on the same health page. And that could result in better health outcomes.

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.