Related Stories

FARMINGTON — Officials struggling to fund a recently restructured state-wide program that helps hospitals pay for care provided to the uninsured say there is significant confusion over the changes and plenty of blame to go around.

County officials and some legislators blamed Gov. Susana Martinez during Wednesday's Legislative Finance Committee meeting at San Juan College, saying one of her line-item vetoes in the senate bill that created the state wide pool — known as the Safety Net Care Pool — has caused San Juan County's and many other counties' problems.

The safety net pool requires counties to pay one-twelfth of 1 percent of their gross receipt taxes to the fund. San Juan County is required to pay about $3 million.

Martinez's line-item veto in Senate Bill 268 eliminated a sunset clause that would have required the county contributions for only three years, county officials say, and now payments are mandated for perpetuity.

Steve Kopelman, New Mexico Association of Counties executive director, said without the sunset clause, counties collectively are now obligated to produce in 10 years at least $250 million for the fund.

The bill's main sponsor, Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, said placing that additional obligation on counties is illegal.

The veto's effects, she said, are "very profound and far-reaching for all the counties."

But Martinez feels the safety net pool is a critical program and should be permanent, spokesman Michael Lonergan said in an email.

"If the Legislature so chooses, they can take up any item they like in the next legislative session," Lonergan wrote, "including the sunset provision in this new law."

Martinez in a conference call with The Daily Times on June 27 declined to directly address the line-item veto issue.

Officials also said during Wednesday's meeting that the formula that determines which hospitals in the state receive safety net pool funds appears to have changed after legislators passed it, which has also caused problems.

Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec, said he voted for the bill because he believed San Juan Regional Medical Center would get about $14 million from the safety net pool. But now, he said, it is uncertain how much money San Juan Regional will receive.

"I don't know if I was deceived or I misunderstood," he said.

Brent Earnest, New Mexico Human Services Department deputy secretary, said San Juan Regional and the state's two other large hospitals, Las Cruces's Memorial Medical Center and Santa Fe's CHRISTUS St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, will likely receive several million dollars.

He said the state's smaller hospitals, which under the funding formula are to get 60 percent of the safety net pool's funding, won't all apply. They won't get $40 million from the safety net pool — instead they'll likely qualify for about $27 million, he said.

The roughly $13 million remaining will go to the larger hospitals, he said, and that's how the Human Services Department planned it.

"I think that's an important point," he said.

San Juan County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter also said the Martinez administration has hardly communicated with them during the safety net pool rollout, making budgeting difficult.

But Martinez said in the June 27 conference call that she has met with hospital and county officials and connected hospital officials with state officials that could help them understand the safety net care pool and its effects.

"We are in communication constantly," she said.

Carpenter has said this is not true.

But a federal lawsuit and Legislative Finance Committee minutes indicate there are other reasons for the changes.

The practices of certain counties and private hospitals intended to wrongfully increase the amount of federal money they received, the documents indicate, are among the reasons the predecessor to the safety net pool — the Sole Community Provider Program — was disbanded.

No state officials would directly comment on the matter.

The Sole Community Provider Program also helped fund hospitals' uncompensated health care costs. Counties where those hospitals operated would contribute money to a state grant, and the state's Human Services Department would match those contributions with federal funds at a three-to-one ratio.

But the federal lawsuit, filed in New Mexico's U.S. District Court in late April 2005, claims three private hospitals in the state instead gave their respective counties funds for their state matches so the grant funding would be larger.

According to December 2011 Legislative Finance Committee minutes, the state faced having to pay the federal government $53 million due to the hospitals' practices.

The federal lawsuit is still under litigation.

San Juan Regional Medical Center was not included in the lawsuit because it is a non-profit hospital, Earnest said.

Dan Schwartz covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606 and Follow him @dtdschwartz on Twitter.