Six years later we're still debating whether the University of New Mexico can build a new hospital.
This is not a UNM discussion or an Albuquerque discussion. As UNM Hospitals CEO Steve McKernan explained, "Almost every town in New Mexico is a one-hospital town, and it's a critical-access hospital" that can't treat seriously ill or injured patients.
Every hospital and clinic in the state relies on UNM Hospital, which has the state's only Level One trauma center. In a year, it will see more than 93,000 emergency visits and 7,000 trauma cases. Patients come from around the state.
Let's look at the checklist:
Can they demonstrate need? Check. UNM Hospital began in 1954 as Bernalillo County Indian Hospital and joined UNM in the late 1960s.
"At UNM we're working in an old facility," McKernan told New Mexico Press Women last year. "We worry the infrastructure could fail."
Can they demonstrate demand? Check. "We have 308 adult beds," he said. "We have patients in the ER waiting for beds."
Can they afford it? Check. "We try to operate within a positive net margin," McKernan said, and build up balances to meet the cost of new hospital. UNM would still need to issue bonds, and it has an AAA bond rating.
UNM Hospital turned away more than 1,000 patients in the past year because it didn't have beds, and a quarter of them were critically ill or injured, according to UNM Health Sciences Chancellor Paul Roth's recent testimony before the state Board of Finance. Rural hospitals complain that they can't get patients in because UNM Hospital is always on Code Purple, meaning it can't accept any more patients.
This should be a straightforward decision, but it's been anything but. Blame politics.
The hospital gets internal approvals - medical staff and university administrators are solidly behind the proposal - and then runs into resistance from the governor's political appointees, namely two of her regents and the state Board of Finance.
From investigative reporting by New Mexico In Depth and New Mexico Political Report, we know a lot about this troubled process. In 2011, the Board of Regents and the state Higher Education Department approved a new 96-bed hospital, but the Board of Finance simply never voted. The governor, who sits on the Board of Finance, had received a campaign contribution from Lovelace, which opposed a new hospital.
We also know that the governor's appointees removed two regents from UNM's Health Science Center Board of Directors because they supported a new facility.
"There's clearly a resistance to it," former regent Brad Hosmer told New Mexico In Depth. "The kind of questions and discussions that we see from Santa Fe ... are skeptical, hostile, resistant, which I find puzzling."
Last year, the state Human Services Department asked UNM for $50 million from the hospital to bridge a Medicaid gap. When Human Services learned it would need approvals from university entities, it dropped the request, but soon after, Regents President Rob Doughty began an under-the-table process that ended the Health Science Center's autonomy and brought it under UNM's president.
Last week, Lovelace dodged the Albuquerque Journal's questions about its position on the latest proposal for a 120-bed facility, the first phase of a 408-bed, $684 million hospital.
Doughty, who has consistently opposed a new hospital, recently questioned its impact on UNM. And the governor and her people on the state Board of Finance said they're still opposed.
If the governor and her appointees are bowing to the for-profit Lovelace in this decision, is that what's best for New Mexico? If they oppose a new facility so they can tap UNM Hospital's nest egg, is that good management?
And how does it look to the outside world that we're willing to build new sports facilities for economic development, but we tolerate an aging, inadequate hospital?
Contact Sherry Robinson at www.nmopinions.com