COMMENTARY: I am concerned that the overnight dissolution of the board of directors of the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center (HSC) by the University of New Mexico (UNM) board of regents could jeopardize the long-term viability of the HSC as a leading national academic medical center. The speed of this decision raises red flags and could affect the accreditation of both UNM and the HSC, since accrediting bodies require institutional autonomy to make decisions in the best interest of the institution and assure its integrity.
The HSC is New Mexico’s only accredited academic medical center, one of 126 in the nation that combine teaching, clinical care and research. It includes the state’s only school of medicine, five of whose departments rank among the top 40 National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant-funded departments in the nation; colleges of nursing and pharmacy; a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center; and the Clinical and Translational Science Center, one of only 62 NIH-funded medical research institutions in a national consortium whose goal is to accelerate the translation of laboratory discoveries into treatments for patients. It also includes the UNM hospital, the state’s only level 1 trauma center.
In fiscal year 2015, the HSC employed nearly 10,000 full-time employees and accounted for nearly 50 percent of UNM’s revenues (not including state appropriations or the Bernalillo County mill levy).
Under the Constitution of New Mexico, UNM is governed by a board of six regents “who shall be qualified electors” and one who is a member of the student body. The regents are appointed by the governor with the consent of the Senate. On March 14, with only a business day’s notice, four regents appointed by Governor Martinez voted to eliminate the HSC board. This eliminated the positions of community board members, including that of Ann Rhoades, a leading human resources consultant serving on patient safety and quality task forces with the Texas Medical Institute of Technology and on the board of Harvard Medical School’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital Patient Safety Center of Excellence.
Last April, Suzanne Quillen, a regent with decades of experience in health care management, was removed from her position as chair of the HSC’s board after publicly expressing support for a new UNM hospital. To the best of my knowledge, none of the regents who voted for these changes or who now sit on the board of regents’ standing HSC committee have any education, training or experience in health care or the health care industry.
The Martinez Administration reportedly opposes the construction of a new UNM hospital because it would compete with private hospitals. While the UNM hospital competes to some extent with local private hospitals, it more importantly plays a key role in the HSC’s ability to compete nationally with other academic medical centers for talented researchers and faculty and for research and grant funding.
The UNM hospital dates back to 1954. As shown by recent reports of high numbers of patients being turned away for lack of beds, it is too small to serve all who need care there, with outdated facilities bound to affect patient care. Further, unlike private hospitals, university hospitals treat the sickest patients and serve larger Medicaid and Medicare patient populations.
In light of the state’s budget crunch, the HSC’s reserves (savings toward the new hospital) have recently become of interest. During the legislative session, the HSC turned down a request from the Human Services Department for $50 million to fill a Medicaid budget gap. UNM’s regents have fiduciary responsibility for UNM’s assets and programs. Their duty is to ensure that the HSC maintains or increases its standing among the ranks of other academic medical centers.
Whether a new UNM hospital would compete with private hospitals or whether access to HSC funds helps Governor Martinez keep her “no new taxes” promise should not influence any regent’s vote. Nor should personal or political gain.
Mary Kay Papen, a Democrat from Las Cruces, is president pro tempore of the New Mexico Senate.