In New Mexico’s poverty-stricken rural areas, access to quality health care — spurred in no small measure by an epidemic of opioid drug addiction — is a continual struggle. The Providers, an inspiring new documentary on health care in rural New Mexico and three individuals at the forefront of the battle to end drug abuse, has its broadcast premiere on New Mexico PBS on Monday, April 8. The documentary is part of the Emmy Award-winning Independent Lens series.
In advance of the broadcast, the documentary’s co-directors, Laura Green and Anna Moot-Levin, join the health care providers featured in their film — Matt Probst, Leslie Hayes, and Chris Ruge — at the Nick Salazar Center for the Arts Theatre at Northern New Mexico University in Española for a 5 p.m. screening and panel discussion. The event takes place on Saturday, March 16. The panel discussion is moderated by Megan Kamerick, a New Mexico broadcast journalist and host of KUNM’s All Things Considered.
“Laura, my co-director, and I spent about six months doing research for this film on the subject of rural health care,” Moot-Levin said. “We spoke with people all over the country involved in rural medicine and family medicine in underserved communities. We had a number of referrals to folks in New Mexico.”
Through a series of recommendations, Moot-Levin and Green were introduced to Matt Probst, the medical director of El Centro Family Health, which has hubs in Las Vegas and Española. “We were drawn to him as a visionary for the future of rural health care and for his own personal connection to the community,” she said. “He grew up in Pojoaque.”
The Providers follows its subjects as they treat their patients while also navigating perilous issues of their own. Probst, for instance, is a physician’s assistant whose own father died as a result of opioid addiction. His sister’s problems with drugs landed her in jail. He’s devoted his life to helping his community, who face similar issues.
Making The Providers required an extended stay in an area of the country that most people outside of New Mexico have never even heard of. With a small staff of dedicated professionals, El Centro serves a 22,000-square-mile region where residents of some of the most remote villages in the country face daunting odds in order to get quality health care. For many, the care they need requires extended trips to larger towns and cities with regional medical facilities, and the costs can be prohibitive. That means healthcare workers like Chris Ruge have to go to them, instead of the other way around. Following Ruge, a nurse practitioner, meant bringing the camera into people’s homes and broaching the sacrosanct healthcare provider and patient relationship.
Moot-Levin and Green spent about 120 days filming in New Mexico, but pre-production to post-production was a process of two and a half years. “It was really important for us to spend time in the communities,” Moot-Levin said. “That was really key in terms of building long-term, trusting relationships with the people in the film. We approached patients without the camera first and spoke to them about what we were trying to do, which was to show the really important work of people in rural health care.”
In preparing for the documentary, Green and Moot-Levin traveled to clinics run by El Centro across the region. They met with Dr. Leslie Hayes, whose focus is on opioid use disorder among pregnant women, at the Española clinic. Like medical director Probst, Hayes grew up in Northern New Mexico. Her advocacy for addiction treatment earned her recognition as a White House Champion for Change. The honor came while The Providers was still in production, and the filmmakers include footage of Hayes attending the ceremony at the White House in 2016.
Part of what makes The Providers a heartfelt, life-affirming watch is the steadfast commitment and compassion of the healthcare workers themselves. Hayes maintains that real progress in treating addiction can only be made when the medical community prioritizes it, making it an integral part of family practices. That may not be an issue in all states, but in New Mexico, which had the nation’s 15th highest rate of opioid-related overdose deaths at the time Green and Moot-Levin were making their film, it’s crucial.
The Providers makes a case for such common-sense tactics but also shows the challenges faced by healthcare providers who consistently struggle for funding, face staff shortages, and, most critically, physician shortages.
The heart of the documentary is its focus on relationships, particularly on the trust the healthcare professionals have built over their long-term engagement with their patients.
“I think all of the patients in the film recognize and understand that their healthcare providers are doing amazing work in their communities,” Moot-Levin said. “Many of the patients we spoke with felt disrespected and were not heard by other healthcare providers. They were able to take the brave steps of making themselves vulnerable and opening up to us about their stories. They also had an interest in having more healthcare providers who are like Matt, Chris, and Leslie, who treat them with dignity and respect.” ◀
▼ The Providers free preview screening and panel discussion
▼ 6 p.m. Saturday, March 16
▼ Nick Salazar Center for the Arts Theatre, Northern New Mexico University, 921 N. Paseo de Oñate, Española
▼ The Providers has its broadcast premiere on New Mexico PBS on Monday, April 8, at 9 p.m.