SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A lack of oversight within the New Mexico Department of Health likely was a factor in high COVID-19 infection and death rates among residents at the New Mexico State Veterans’ Home, according to a review by legislative analysts.
Members of the Legislative Finance Committee discussed the report, which was made public this week, during its meeting Wednesday.
The report noted that multiple independent reviews found failure to follow proper infection control and personal protective equipment procedures at the nursing home despite early guidance from state health officials. Also, a pattern of deficiencies has cost the facility over $180,000 in federal penalties since 2015.
Lawmakers described the findings as discouraging.
Democratic Sen. Nancy Rodriguez of Santa Fe said the conditions at the Truth or Consequences veterans home — where 28 residents died of COVID-19, according to federal data — are “unacceptable.” The facility houses four disabled veterans to a room, she said.
“It’s unconscionable and we must change that,” Rodriguez said.
The report recommended that the health department take immediate action to ensure staff follow best practices regarding use of protective equipment. That would include refresher training, real-time coaching and random auditing.
The analysts also recommended that the department develop a systemwide facilities master plan that includes an assessment of needs for all services currently offered. They said it should include options for replacing the Veterans’ Home with federal support and consolidating substance abuse treatment centers.
Executives under Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said they largely agree with the recommendations and are taking steps to address the findings, the Albuquerque Journal reported. They said the facilities face particular challenges because they care for high-risk populations not served by the private sector and that some problems date back decades.
“We’re dedicated to making things better for the people we serve,” said Kathy Kunkel, a former health secretary who now works in the governor’s office.
Human Services Secretary David Scrase told lawmakers that even the most well-funded private nursing homes in New Mexico faced difficulty limiting the spread of COVID-19 during the pandemic. The veterans home, Scrase said, was particularly challenging, given the layout of the building, with four people to a room.
“What happened at the veterans home,” he said, “is about the same as what happened throughout the entire state and, in my opinion, based on design issues, could have been much worse.”
The 28 deaths at the veterans home – which occurred over several months late last year – equaled 19% of the facility’s 145-bed capacity, according to the report. The percentage was higher than the state average, one analyst told lawmakers.
Building, designing and furnishing a new veterans home is expected to cost $90 million to $95 million, state officials said. Federal grants, however, could cover 65% of the cost.
Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat and chairwoman of the Legislative Finance Committee, urged the Lujan Grisham administration to tap federal stimulus funding to build a new veterans home.
“With this high-risk population,” Lundstrom said, “we need to do something, and we need to do it sooner than later.”
Several legislators said New Mexico needs to focus on improving all seven facilities, not just the veterans home.
“What we’re paying for should be very good care, and we’re not getting it,” said committee Vice Chairman Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup.