Health department says 'give me a break'

SANTA FE (KRQE) - (This article was published on September 11, 2014)

The Department of Health is a state agency with a whopping budget. But one, $600,000 expenditure, is raising hackles over at the Roundhouse.

"Obviously I have no idea how you came across the information...but the legislature was not informed of this,” Senator John Arthur Smith said.

Senate Finance Committee Chair John Arthur Smith is a bit miffed.

"I don't think they did anything totally, completely illegal, I do believe that it was not financially responsible,” Smith said.

The health department is responsible for the care of thousands of patients in mental health facilities, nursing homes and rehab centers across the state. The facilities include the Ft. Bayard Medical Center in Silver City, the Behavioral Health Institute in Las Vegas, the Sequoyah Adolescent Center in Albuquerque and the State Veteran’s Home in T or C.

Healthcare is expensive and despite having a $545 billion budget, there isn't enough money to keep up with changing fire and safety codes, aging buildings and strict federal health standards.

The department has a $40 million backlog of items relating to critical patient health, safety issues and code violations. But there is one health project you won't find anywhere in the agency's budget or capital improvement plan.

Earlier this year, the health department found an extra $600,000 and they had a couple of options on how to use it. They could return the money to the New Mexico’s general fund, use it to address the millions of dollars in critical patient health and safety needs, or they could build employee break rooms.

Health Department Cabinet Secretary Retta Ward opted for break rooms. And not just one employee lounge.  The health department built four of them. One on each floor of the department’s multistory Runnels Building in Santa Fe.

"We had the opportunity to build some break rooms to provide a place for employees to sit comfortably, eat their food and wash dishes,” Ward said.

It wasn't really a secret, but few people outside the health department knew about this extensive $600,000 state construction project.

"We decided this would be a good thing to do…I think it’s very important,” Ward said.

The money was not used for the behavioral health surveillance system, the veteran's home, the Alzheimer’s unit or Sequoyah's card access system.

When asked how critically important the break rooms are in the department’s building, Ward said “I think they're important to the health and safety of the people who work in this building.”

“I don't think washing dishes in bathrooms is hygienic," Ward added.

Smith shared his opinions on the health and safety concerns of the employees.

"They may not like where they have to wash their dishes...but the bottom line is I don't think it is elevated to the level of health and safety standards for a hospital in Las Vegas, veterans home in T or C New Mexico, facility in Ft. Bayard, drug treatment facilities...Those are higher priorities in my way of thinking." Smith said.

The $600,000 expenditure was made quietly, without notice to the legislature which authorizes the health department’s budget.

"If you turned to the taxpayer and said health department, do you want break rooms for the employees or do you want additional safety vehicles for patients and that sort of thing and I think the public is going to say lets take care of patients, lets take care of our disabled...We're fueling the belief out there that theres an awful lot of waste in government." Smith said.

Ward said they are meeting the critical health and safety needs of all of the patients in each of their facilities.

"No patients in any of our seven facilities are in danger. We would never allow that to happen," Ward said. "And in the time frame that we had to expend these funds, many of these projects were not doable and the money would have reverted to the general fund. I stand by this decision. I still think it was a good decision."


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