Mark Milliorn was talking with a colleague at New Mexico State University on July 13 when he realized the discomfort in his chest was not heartburn.
Milliorn, who ran the campus Language Learning Center and taught classes, had been chomping on antacids for a couple of weeks. He’d already downed several that day. Now he felt like a large woman wearing stilettos was standing on his chest.
“Ray, we gotta go,” Milliorn remembers telling Ray Sadler, the emeritus history professor with whom he was chatting.
A couple of hours earlier, the dean’s office had called Milliorn. NMSU Chancellor Garrey Carruthers had announced the day before that 37 employees’ jobs were being cut because of a budget shortfall. The employees hadn’t yet been named or notified. The dean wanted to meet with Milliorn at 4:30 p.m.
That meeting never happened.
Millorn locked his office door and walked out of Breland Hall. He remembers standing under the hot summer sun in the middle of the street. He wondered if he should drive home to see his wife Karen, a retired surgeon. Instead he wandered across the street to NMSU’s Campus Health Center.
The doors were locked. A doctor, nurse practitioner and two nurses were in the lobby chatting. They had learned earlier in the day that NMSU was eliminating on-campus employee health services. Seven employees there were losing their jobs.
It was about 1:10 p.m. The Campus Health Center was closed while employees took a late lunch after meeting with the provost to discuss the cuts.
Milliorn remembers a woman telling him through the glass doors that the health center was closed. He recalls mumbling something like “chest pain.” The staffers in the lobby opened the door.
Then they saved his life.
Milliorn remembers health center staffers taking his blood pressure, giving him oxygen, putting him on a gurney, pumping something into his blood through an IV, putting a nitroglycerin tablet under his tongue to improve blood flow, and calling an ambulance.
“Within seconds of that nitro tablet dissolving under my tongue, the evil woman wearing a stiletto stepped off my chest,” Milliorn would later write in a blog post.
The day after his heart attack, Milliorn had quintuple bypass surgery at Memorial Medical Center. Several days later, he would formally learn that his job was being eliminated to help NMSU plug a $12.1 million-dollar hole in its budget.
With the state facing a shortfall of several hundred million additional dollars in the current fiscal year and the governor taking tax increases off the table, more cuts are likely for NMSU and other government agencies funded by the state. Already, the Tourism Department has announced it will close half the state’s visitor centers and eliminate nine jobs in October.
NMSU says it’s prepared for additional cuts but, depending on how significant the university’s funding drops, it’s possible others could join Milliorn, the health center employees, and the others whose jobs were lost in July.
‘Bemoaning our situation’
Nurse practitioner Kathryn Ray was one of the employees in the lobby of the Campus Health Center “bemoaning our situation” when Milliorn showed up on July 13. Hours earlier Bernadette Montoya, the university’s vice president for student affairs and enrollment management, showed up unannounced at the health center. One by one, Montoya met with Ray and six other employees to tell them they were losing their jobs.
“They just showed up, they called us in, they gave us a letter,” Ray said.
It came as a surprise, Ray said. Though Carruthers had publicly discussed the possibility of ending on-campus employee health services, Ray figured the health center had survived the cuts because July 1, the start of the new fiscal year, had passed.
NMSU’s administration made promises, Ray said. The university was negotiating with Memorial Medical Center (MMC), a hospital located near the university’s golf course, to take over operation of the Campus Health Center, which also serves students. MMC would offer jobs to all health center employees being laid off, she said they were told. In an interview with NMPolitics.net on July 12, Carruthers refused to publicly name MMC but gave the same assurance that the provider NMSU was negotiating with would offer jobs to the laid-off health center employees.
The negotiations with MMC, undertaken without letting other providers bid on the contract, were legal. The state’s Procurement Code allowed that as long as the contract increased access to health care. In his interview with NMPolitics.net, Carruthers touted the expanded evening and weekend hours the on-campus clinic would offer once the deal was finalized.
But the deal was never finalized. Negotiations fell apart after the student body president took issue with the plan to outsource student health services.
Even before that, the negotiations were controversial. Ray said health center employees had questions when they met with Provost Dan Howard during the lunch hour on July 13. Howard was on MMC’s Board of Trustees at the time, and some raised questions about his role. Howard told the employees he wasn’t involved in negotiations, Ray said.
“If you haven’t been in on negotiations and you can’t tell us anything, why didn’t they send someone that could tell us?” Ray recalls asking.
“We were very skeptical about the part that Memorial would have jobs for everyone,” Ray said. “I think we saw that for what it was.”
Two days after health center employees raised concerns, Howard resigned from MMC’s board. “…because New Mexico State University and Memorial Medical Center will likely have a future business relationship, it is time that I resign my position to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest,” he wrote in his resignation letter.
Negotiations ceased about 10 days later.
NMSU now plans to continue operating the Campus Health Center on its own, to serve students only. There have been some discussions with off-campus clinics about providing easier access to NMSU employees, but no agreement has materialized. And university spokesman Justin Bannister said on Aug. 29 that a third-party provider, who he didn’t name (but is MMC), “has reached out to some of the NMSU Campus Health Center employees in eliminated positions” and would soon reach out to the rest. “We do not know how many of the employees have been or will be offered positions as a result of this outreach,” he said.
Ray’s last day at NMSU was Aug. 15. She said MMC hasn’t called to offer her a job.
‘I had to accept it’
Milliorn was feeling pretty good by the time he was strapped to a gurney in the back of an ambulance and headed to MMC on July 13. He started giggling. His brother, unaware of what was happening, texted Milliorn. He responded by sending a selfie. That photo, which Milliorn took at 1:35 p.m., shows only his jeans and shoes, with straps holding his legs in place.
He recalls some details from his stay in the hospital. People explaining things. Agreeing to requests from medical professionals. Trusting that his wife would handle the situation.
But he also had hallucinations. “Lots of things in the room kept moving: there was a menagerie of furry animals, and people who weren’t actually there came to visit (Mary Wolf, frequently). At one point, I vividly saw Captain Morgan walk through the room,” he wrote in another blog post.
An hour after Milliorn took his selfie in the back of the ambulance, NMSU’s Board of Regents convened a public meeting in an auditorium in Domenici Hall on campus.
At the meeting, Carruthers announced publicly for the first time his plans to address the budget shortfall, including eliminating the dozens of jobs and on-campus employee health services. NMSU says ending employee health services will save $665,500 a year.
Milliorn went home from MMC on July 19. Two days later, while on medical leave, he says university officials called to tell him that he was losing his job and to offer him a new position.
“They’re pressuring me to agree to a job change on the phone,” Milliorn recalled in an interview. “I told them, I said guys, I’m not in any mental condition to do this. We shouldn’t be having this conversation.”
He refused to talk and hung up the phone.
The timing of that call, Bannister said, was influenced by requests from NMPolitics.net and other media for a list of eliminated positions — information state law makes public. NMPolitics.net published that list on July 28, but agreed to the university not including the position of one employee who hadn’t yet been notified his job was being cut because of a medical emergency.
Nonetheless, inclusion in the article of the explanation for why one employee’s position wasn’t identified alerted Milliorn’s wife Karen and others who knew about his situation. So the university felt it needed to act.
“While we would have preferred to further delay the notification, the release by the media made that impossible,” Bannister said.
Soon after ending the phone call, Milliorn received a letter offering him a job as an NMSU admissions adviser at $41,000 a year, which he said is a 20 percent pay cut. According to the letter, he had two days to decide.
Milliorn, who has no experience working in admissions, took the job.
“I had to accept it or I would have been terminated and I would have lost my health insurance,” he said.
NMSU awarded Milliorn with the “A” Mountain Staff Award in 2011. The award recognizes one employee a year whose work inspires others. He had been scheduled to teach two sections of Spanish 364, The Culture of Latin America, this semester. Those courses are being taught by others.
‘My whole identity’
Ray choked up when asked how she’s adjusting to life after NMSU, where she worked for eight years.
“My whole identity, I’ve been a nurse practitioner for 44 years. It’s my identity, and I love working at New Mexico State,” she said.
She’s concerned about the Campus Health Center’s ability to provide the same level of care to students with a reduced staff. Even though the health center also used to serve employees, most of its clients were students.
Ray, 65, had planned to work another five years. There’s still a position at the Campus Health Center she said she might be able to eventually fill, but it’s currently frozen. She’s had conversations with other medical providers about working part-time but has not chosen to go back to work, at least yet.
Ray can collect Social Security and is taking a break from work until January. She and her husband are guardians to their 7-year-old granddaughter Danyell. Since she’s not working, Ray is able to pick Danyell up from school and spend more time with her.
“Right now we live frugally, we have savings,” Ray said. “If in January we can’t pay our bills, I’ll go back to work.”
‘The real tragedy’
Milliorn’s health is slowly improving. He is scheduled to start his new job in October.
“There have been a few setbacks, but I’m definitely getting better,” he said. “They say it takes months to recover, and I’m starting to believe them.”
Milliorn is an NMSU alumnus. He’s taught more than 30 courses in three different academic departments at the university. He said he’s dismayed by what’s happening at NMSU and places a lot of blame on Carruthers’ administration.
“There are a lot of things that just don’t make sense anymore, and so many faculty members who I respect, that teach well, have either left or are in the process of leaving,” he said.
The Campus Health Center had been a convenience for employees. Copays were $5. Wait times were short. An on-site pharmacy meant employees could quickly see a doctor, get medication if needed, and get back to work.
Milliorn used the center as his primary method of receiving health care.
“I could get a flu shot between classes, and how in the world that was not an asset for the university just mystifies the hell out of me,” he said. If the health center wasn’t bringing in enough money, Milliorn believes the university could have raised copays without any protest.
The medical professionals who saved Milliorn’s life “did a remarkable job,” he said. Some of them no longer work for NMSU.
“The real tragedy in all this is not me, but that we’ve lost such an incredible asset,” he said.
Meanwhile, Bannister said the university is “proud of the good work that our employee health clinic staff provided that day [to Milliorn] and every day.”
Even though eliminating on-campus employee health services “was an unavoidable consequence of the necessary budget cuts,” anyone with a medical emergency, including employees, “can come to the health center for aid,” Bannister said.
This BBSNews article originally appeared on NMPolitics.net.