A panel of lawmakers has endorsed 17 bills that include proposals meant to improve access to health care in rural New Mexico and make it easier for medical students to pay off debt if they agree to practice in less populated areas.

The interim Health and Human Services Committee voted to endorse the laundry list of bills this week at the end of a daylong committee meeting.

The bills still have to go through the entire legislative process if they are to become law. That includes passing through House and Senate committees, passing the full House and Senate and then a signature from the governor.

But an endorsement from the interim panel means the proposals can hit the ground running when the Legislature meets in January, and are some of the earliest pieces of legislation to surface ahead of the 2021 session.

Taken together, the committee endorsed legislation that asks for more than $2.9 million in cumulative direct appropriations from the state’s general fund.

That could be a heavy lift at a time when the state is eying a $991 million deficit because of declining oil and gas revenues and less income from gross receipts tax and tourism due to the pandemic.

The $2.9 million figure also is only a tally of direct expenditures from the general fund endorsed by the committee.

It does not include various tax credit proposals for health care professionals and the proposed loan repayment program — measures that were endorsed this week by the interim committee but have not yet been through a 2021 legislative fiscal analysis, so the total cost is unknown.

Those proposals could receive heavy scrutiny from House Appropriations and Finance Chairwoman Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, who has already expressed skepticism over the state’s existing tax credits, which total about $1 billion a year according to an analysis from economists for the Legislative Finance Committee.

Measures that call for direct appropriations range from funding for the training of “family-friendly workplace programs,” to a requirement that the Aging and Long-Term Services Department buy only New Mexico-grown fruits and vegetables, to half a million dollars to create a registry for people who have been diagnosed with human papillomavirus, or HPV, a sexually transmitted disease that can cause cancer, among a slew of other funding requests.

Much of the legislation attempts to address problems that have surfaced or worsened during the pandemic, including access to medical care.

Rep. Debbie Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, a member of the interim committee, thanked other panel members Thursday for bringing up legislation that “tried to keep a focus on what was most relevant, particularly as it relates to being in the middle of a pandemic.”

Among the proposals is a measure that would help medical and mental health physicians pay back student loan debt if they serve in rural areas of the state, according to the legislation, which has not yet been assigned a bill number.

The early draft bill does not state a specific amount of debt that can be paid off, but it says that amount could be modified based on the financial circumstances of the state and would be paid after a “full and careful” review of the “character and qualifications of each eligible clinician to determine fitness to become a recipient in the loan repayment program,” the bill said.

With a similar aim of expanding access to health care by making it easier for medical professionals who often take on massive debt to receive training, another bill would offer a $1,000 tax credit for health professionals, while another measure would appropriate $250,000 to the University of New Mexico to help prepare medical students to work in “underserved areas” of the state.

Another proposal endorsed by the committee would create a state-based meat inspection program amid a dearth of federal inspectors.

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