The office of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced the creation of a new multiagency effort Wednesday aimed at preventing poor or abusive treatment of adults at New Mexico’s nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, particularly amid the challenges presented by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Attorney General Hector Balderas, State Auditor Brian Colón and the state’s long-term care ombudsman will work with the health and aging agencies in a bid to ensure complaints of abuse at such facilities are handled quickly, Lujan Grisham’s office said.

“This new process will take a hard look at the information and complaints we are seeing come from families, residents, and surveyors, with the goal of expanding accountability and increasing the standard of care across New Mexico,” Aging and Long-Term Services Secretary Katrina Hotrum-Lopez said in a statement.

The multiagency effort comes after the number of investigations into suspected abuse and neglect of adults at long-term care facilities in New Mexico fell after nursing homes curbed in-person visitation as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Adult Protective Services Division of the Aging and Long-Term Services Department conducted an average of 459 investigations per month into abuse and neglect allegations between January and March of this year. But that number fell to 294 in April and 332 in May, Hotrum-Lopez said last month.

Under the new arrangement, the ombudsman, state Department of Health and Adult Protective Services will review information and, when needed, forward complaints to executive agencies that can investigate, level fines and prosecute.

“We must work together and leverage the tools of our offices to protect vulnerable New Mexicans from anyone who would defraud or abuse them,” Balderas said.

The new partnership is part of an initiative from the State Ombudsman Program to increase wellness, dignity and justice during the COVID-19 pandemic, the statement said.

“At a time when we need strong oversight for our seniors and care dependent New Mexicans, this referral process will enable residents and their families to restore their dignity and seek the justice they deserve,” state Ombudsman Zack Quintero said.

Lujan Grisham had asked the ombudsman to review complaints of abuse during the pandemic and to recommend ways of boosting support for residents and their families, her office said.

The care people receive in congregate care facilities came under scrutiny almost from the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis — first with deadly outbreaks of the novel coronavirus at nursing homes statewide and later as families began to criticize the restrictions that often limited their visits to communicating through nursing home windows.

As the virus began to spread in New Mexico in March, state officials issued an emergency order limiting contact at nursing homes to people whose loved ones were receiving end-of-life care and prohibiting other visitors.

Last month, Lujan Grisham relaxed the state’s restrictions, allowing for outdoor visitation by appointment with group home residents at long-term care facilities with no active COVID-19 cases and only in counties with low case rates.

The governor has acknowledged the difficulties families experienced while being unable to visit loved ones, even noting that she hadn’t been able to see her own mother.

Reporter

Jens Gould covers politics for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He was a correspondent for Bloomberg News in Mexico City, a regular contributor for TIME in California, and produced the video series Bravery Tapes.

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