ALBUQUERQUE – Two of the state agencies that have been key in New Mexico’s response to the coronavirus pandemic laid out their spending requests to a panel of state lawmakers Friday, citing numerous challenges that have tested employees and stretched their budgets over the last several months.
The Health and Human Services departments have been dealing with a surge in COVID-19 infections, related deaths and hospitalizations as pressure mounts to do more testing and tracking to get spread under control ahead of any vaccination efforts.
The Health Department is seeking a special appropriation of nearly $9 million to implement the state’s vaccine distribution plan. That would include funding for equipment such as freezers, tents and other supplies as well as contract nurses, medical assistants, and other staff members on the front lines at vaccine clinics.
Since the pandemic began, the agency reported that employees have worked more than 122,680 overtime hours, resulting in nearly $4 million in additional overtime costs. That work has included everything from contact tracing and case investigation to testing and making preparations for mass mortalities as a result of the pandemic.
“We each have our full-time regular work fulfilling the mission of the Department of Health and then we have a whole other layer of response that is so critical at this time,” Jason Cornwell, a member of the Health Department’s leadership team, told lawmakers.
One of the largest increases in funding requested by the Human Services Department would be funneled to its behavioral health program to address the need for more services around depression, anxiety and other mental health issues that have emerged because of the pandemic’s economic and social tolls.
There’s also increased pressure on the income assistance programs overseen by the agency as more people have been enrolled and are receiving public aid. For example, COVID-19-related waivers have led to more than 460,000 New Mexicans getting one-time food assistance while tens of thousands of families are getting help with their groceries through extended enrollment, according to state data.
The Human Services Department reported that its income support division has seen the monthly volume of calls increase threefold when compared with previous years. Some calls went unanswered, Department Secretary Dr. David Scrase told lawmakers.
“We have problems,” he said, acknowledging the surge in demand. “Swallowing this kind of pandemic, expanding these kinds of programs has been a real challenge, and we have areas that we’re not doing as well as we’d like to do.”
There also are concerns that without more federal relief, the Medicaid program would have to reduce costs by 16%, or $162 million in state general funds. Officials warned that could result in cutting provider rates for hospitals, nursing homes and all other providers as well as the end of a home health program and a rewards program that incentivizes healthy behaviors.
New Mexico has the highest population percentage in the U.S. that is covered by Medicaid. According to state data, more than 835,000 people received some kind of benefits through Medicaid in February 2020, with more than 40% of them being children. That jumped to 901,000 in November.
By March, expectations are that Medicaid beneficiaries will top 917,000. Expenditures by the program are expected to top $7.3 billion this fiscal year.
State officials also said the public health crisis is widening the gap when it comes to social and economic inequality. They pointed to an analysis of census data and poverty rates that showed infection rates are higher among those people experiencing greater levels of poverty.