A new legislative report paints a damning portrait of seven residential health care facilities overseen by the New Mexico Department of Health.
The report, released Wednesday to the Legislative Finance Committee, says a lack of oversight has led to chronic issues that put residents' health and lives at risk.
The problems cited at the facilities — the Fort Bayard Medical Center in Grant County, the Los Lunas Community Program, the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute in Las Vegas, the New Mexico Rehabilitation Center in Roswell, the New Mexico State Veterans' Home in Truth or Consequences, and the Sequoyah Adolescent Treatment Center and Turquoise Lodge Hospital, both in Albuquerque — include staffing shortages, structural deficiencies and poor financial management practices.
The report notes in particular problems at the veterans home, where a COVID-19 outbreak took 28 lives between October and December, deaths that might have been prevented with better oversight.
Based on data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the veterans home received 60 citations for health and safety deficiencies between 2015 and 2020, which led to more than $180 million in federal penalties.
Lawmakers on the committee used strong terms in response to the news.
"This is a scathing report," said Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas, D-Albuquerque.
"Shocking and deeply saddening," said Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces.
Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, said of the situation at the veterans home, "It is not only unacceptable but unconscionable."
The sobering legislative study comes as New Mexico continues to slowly emerge from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which exacerbated problems at the state facilities.
The report also comes as Dr. David Scrase, the state's human services secretary, steps in as the interim secretary of the Department of Health, replacing Dr. Tracie Collins, who recently resigned from the post after not quite 10 months on the job.
Scrase, who has been overseeing both agencies for less than a week, said he agrees with the report's findings. The report will serve as a guideline to create a long-term plan to address the problems and right the system, he added.
The task could be difficult, Scrase indicated as he told the committee, "My main takeaway from reading this report, just to be really frank, is these problems have been going on for 20 years."
All told, the seven facilities have 937 patient beds and employ over 1,400 people. According to the report, the average daily use of those beds is about 560.
Among the report's key findings:
- The Department of Health has no long-term plan for the residential facilities, affecting its ability to respond to deficiencies and patient needs.
- Some of those facilities are underutilized. The state spent $41 million to keep unoccupied beds open in fiscal year 2020.
- Multiple independent reviews of the State Veterans' Home found a failure among staff members to follow COVID-19-safe practices, such as using proper personal protective equipment.
- Inconsistent or overtaxed leadership in the department's facilities division over the past five years — including high director turnover at the veterans home — has aggravated the problems.
The veteran home's previous director, Juliet Sullivan, was placed on administrative leave in December following an investigation into whether the facility was following COVID-19-safe practices. George Morgan, the current director of the Office of Facilities Management, is acting as interim director of the home.
Several lawmakers said they were concerned Scrase will soon become exhausted running two agencies.
"I hope we don't burn you out," Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, told Scrase, while Maestas suggested Scrase "get some rest."
Among other measures, the report recommends the Legislature create a deputy secretary position in the Department of Health to oversee facilities, establish an independent governing board to hold the facilities division accountable and fund a new state veterans home.
Construction for a new facility could cost up to $80 million, the legislative report says.
The home in Truth or Consequences opened in the mid-1980s and is housed in a 1930s Works Progress Administration building that one lawmaker called "a mess."
Scrase said the report was painful for him and his staff members to read. But, he said, "We do own it. We do own the need to tackle this."
He said he hopes to have the "skeleton" of a long-term plan to address the problems within 100 days.