Governor-backed fund would try to address shortage of health care providers in rural areas

Jan. 25—Immediately after Dr. Valory Wangler opened a nonprofit health center serving Gallup and McKinley County last year, patients started to pour through her doors.

"We certainly could tell that we had identified a critical need," said Wangler, founder and executive director of Gallup Community Health.

Since then, the health center has expanded from mostly only Wangler seeing patients to 11 providers working in the burgeoning facility in some capacity or another.

"We believe in paying our staff fairly and making sure that they're able to meet their basic needs, and that has certainly put us at an operating loss," she said.

Under a bill lawmakers started to pore over Wednesday, health care providers such as Wangler could see some financial relief.

Senate Bill 7, sponsored by Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, would create a Rural Health Care Delivery Fund with a $200 million pot of money. It had its first hearing Wednesday before the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee.

The fund, a legislative priority of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, would allow health care providers in counties with fewer than 100,000 people to apply for grants to expand existing facilities or defray operating costs associated with offering new or expanded health care services.

"Senate Bill 7 represents a creative solution to a persistent problem here in New Mexico ... which is an ongoing shortage of providers in our rural areas and the consistent struggles of our rural provider network to keep their doors open to continue providing services to New Mexicans," said Kari Armijo, deputy secretary of the Human Services Department, which would administer the fund.

"We know that in many New Mexico communities, access to care can mean the difference between life and death or good health and poor health, and unfortunately, a lack of access often means that New Mexicans forgo the services they need to lead healthier lives," she added.

The committee offered recommendations to the bill, mostly to clarify intent, and is scheduled to reconsider it Friday.

Armijo said the state is experiencing "critical shortages" of all types of health care in rural areas.

Eleven of the state's 33 counties are considered "OB deserts," which means the have "no obstetric care, no midwife and no alternative place to have a baby," she said.

"Our state currently maintains only 17.7 hospital beds per 10,000 residents, which is well below the national average, ranking New Mexico 45th in the country in terms of access to hospital services," Armijo said, adding seven counties don't have any access to hospital services.

"Most of our rural providers are operating at a loss and struggling to keep their doors open and can't even consider expanding new services," she said.

Wangler said Gallup Community Health would "love" to be able to expand.

"I spoke to a pediatrician yesterday that would love to move to our area, and to be able to say — 'Yeah, we're gonna be able to make that happen, come serve our community; we'll make it work' — would really be phenomenal."

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.