Highlight on New Mexico: New health Secretary has several issues on her plate

The New Mexico Department of Health is undergoing some changes, making important decisions, and overrun with its workload. The new Secretary of Health must figure out how the agency will manage its large load of applications for medical marijuana approval and ensure that providers continue to accept the state’s growing number of Medicaid beneficiaries.

A new leader

New Mexico has a new Secretary for the state Department of Health. Governor Susana Martinez recently appointed Lynn Gallagher to the position. Gallagher has been the Department of Health’s Deputy Secretary, and has also served as General Counsel for the Aging and Long-Term Services Department. Secretary Gallagher described her appointment as “bittersweet,” as it follows the death of Secretary Retta Ward.

Department overloaded with medical marijuana requests

One of the new Secretary’s immediate problems is managing the influx of medical marijuana card requests. According to the Department, the state has about 24,000 people in the medical cannabis program, up from 14,000 last year. On average, New Mexico is receiving 2,700 applications per month. The hard copy system is not helping matters, and approvals are taking about 50 days despite the eight-person team. The state soon plans to bring in some temporary workers to relieve the load.

Underused school-based services cut

The New Mexico Department of Health has chosen not to renew the contracts for school based health centers at Roosevelt Middle School, School on Wheels, Maxwell Municipal Schools, Mountainair Middle and High School, and Belen High School. The department has deemed that primary care services at these school health centers have been underused. Lists of alternative centers that are available for local students have been provided.

A Medicaid provider crisis looks to become even worse

An article written by a public policy analyst calls for the state to reform its Medicaid program, arguing that the current program places an incredible burden on physicians, even before the reimbursement reductions are implemented. In 2014, a Wall Street Journal article emphasized how New Mexico’s Medicaid expansion was vital to those who were suddenly able to obtain care, but exposed the program’s burden on providers. A family doctor turned away all newly eligible Medicaid enrollees who sought care at her practice because of the low reimbursement rates. She noted that Medicaid reimbursed her half of what commercial insurers paid for a moderately complex visit, and regretfully stated that she could not grow the proportion of Medicaid patients that she saw because of the strain it would put on herself and her family.

As if the situation wasn’t bad enough then, the New Mexico Human Services Department recently proposed reimbursement cuts for providers serving Medicaid patients in order to relieve pressure on state and federal government spending. Although preventive care and obstetrics services would be exempt from the cuts, over 2,000 general physicians would be subject to rate decreases.  Hospitals would see their rates slashed by 3 to 8 percent. These cuts stem from the projected $417 million deficit that the Medicaid program will crease in 2016 and 2017, as well as estimates that 43 percent of state residents would be enrolled in Medicaid by 2020. Already, Medicaid patients are subject to lengthy wait times for visits, from three weeks to almost two months. The rate cuts are expected to worsen the wait times.