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Senator wants human services panel to increase duties

SANTA FE – The legislative panel that monitors health and welfare issues in New Mexico between sessions should be a year-round committee with broader powers, according to the ranking senator on the committee.

Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, vice chairman of the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee, is sponsoring a bill to turn the interim committee into a permanent fixture.

Although the 2015 legislative session doesn’t begin until Jan. 20, lawmakers are pre-filing bills for the 60-day session.

Ortiz y Pino’s proposal would elevate the committee to a status shared by only two others: the Legislative Finance Committee and the Legislative Education Study Committee.

Both are long-standing, influential, permanent committees that have full-time staffs and a wide range of duties that include recommending funding levels.

Health and human services issues deserve “some of the attention that we’ve given education all this time,” the Albuquerque lawmaker said.

Ortiz y Pino said his proposal would allow the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee – which has members from both the House and Senate – to meet more often and delve into more issues.

“The workload … has gotten to be enormous,” he said. “The consensus of the committee was we need more time, we need to do a better job, and we’re missing certain topics.”

The committee holds hearings on such matters as the state’s Health Insurance Exchange, Medicaid programs, food stamps, child protection, medical marijuana, health care for prisoners, foster care, and substance abuse.

Ortiz y Pino said the committee hasn’t spent sufficient time on aging-related issues.

The committee and its Behavioral Health Subcommittee devoted a significant amount of time over the past year and a half to the 2013 shake-up in the behavioral health system. That occurred when the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez – alleging overbilling and possible fraud – halted Medicaid funding to 15 providers of mental health and addiction services and replaced a dozen of them with Arizona companies.

It will be tough sledding for Ortiz y Pino’s bill, which would have to be approved by the Democratic-dominated Senate, the newly Republican-led House, and Republican Gov. Martinez in a year when falling oil prices have lawmakers concerned about additional spending.

The legislation would provide $200,000 for staffing and committee activities.

And not all committee members are behind it.

“I’m not for growing government, for one thing,” said Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort, R-Sandia Park, a nonvoting, advisory member. She said the committee has excellent staff and has done good work over the years.

“I just don’t see the need for it,” she said of the proposed legislation.