SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) –  Tens of millions of dollars in our state’s Health Care Affordability Fund were diverted to other things last year. Healthcare advocates say that was wrong, and now, they’re calling on the legislature to not let it happen again.

“Over the past summer, the legislative Health and Human Services Committee has met in Taos, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Las Cruces, Gallup, and everywhere we’ve gone in this state, the issue that keeps coming up is two-fold: one, people don’t have a way to pay for health care, and even if they do have a way to pay for health care, it’s very hard to find it,” said Senator Gerald Ortiz y Pino, (D) Albuquerque.

Story continues below:

Many New Mexicans told stories about impossible decisions and circumstances they’ve faced as a result of poor access to health care and coverage. “I’ve lived in Doña Ana County my entire life. I’ve been working since I was 17. Despite that, there’s times where I don’t qualify for public assistance because I make a little bit too much. Maybe five bucks. There have been years in between that I didn’t go to the doctor. Just kind of get used to living like that,” said Juliana Hernandez, an advocate at the Roundhouse Wednesday.

“No one should have to face financial destitution or their cure to cancer or any chronic illness. I know this too well in having to battle cancer for the last 12 years,” says Lan Sena, policy director for the Center for Civic Policy.

“My last situation was that I fell and my knees were hurt, but I needed to buy a cane but I cannot afford it,” explained America Terrazas, who was in attendance at the meeting, “Those are the kinds of decisions that we have to make, you know. Food or the medicine or something to help me.”

“Due to inadequate federal funding, my husband and I have been limited and have been denied essential care through our local Indian health services,” claimed Verna Craig, policy organizer for Strong Families Forward Together Action New Mexico.

“More than half of New Mexicans have sacrificed medical services in the past two years because of cost. Healthcare debt is also an overwhelming burden for many adults, with four in ten New Mexicans saying they have faced financial hardship as a result of medical bills,” stated Yuko Kobayashi with the New Mexico Asian Family Center, “Through my work with the New Mexico Asian Family Center, I see many people within the pan-Asian and other immigrant communities choosing to skip what may be life-saving procedures due to being uninsured, underinsured, or because they simply cannot afford the cost after insurance.”

The Superintendent of Insurance presented plans for how the Health Care Affordability Fund will be used to the Legislative Finance Committee. The fund was passed last year to get affordable health care for uninsured families and workers in the state. It increased the tax on insurers in the state to put about $165 million in the fund each year.

However, healthcare advocates say $65 million was taken out of the fund and used for different purposes—including but not limited to $10 million taken to help healthcare costs for state workers, and $31 million to Medicaid to cover the increase in the tax. Advocates want to make sure every dollar goes solely towards affordable health care.

“The legislature used this money on programs that should have been funded through the general fund especially in a year where there’s a massive budget surplus in the state…The things that it was used for were not related to making healthcare more affordable as stated in the Healthcare Affordability Fund statute. The money in the fund should be used only to provide affordable coverage to New Mexicans,” says Alex Williams, health care policy advocate with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

“Because there’s so much more to provide access to coverage for the many New Mexicans who are uninsured, we need every dollar in the fund to be spent on making health care more affordable,” Williams said, “It was through sort of like an administrative mistake as we understand it, it was used this way. We’re hoping to avoid that same mistake happening again this year.”

“Sixty-five percent of New Mexicans express uncertainty about having enough money to pay for their usual healthcare services,” explained Dr. Jesse Barnes with Primary Care Advocates for Healthy Communities, “Given the scope and complexity of this healthcare affordability crisis, I believe it is absolutely essential that the legislature dedicate the full amount of the healthcare affordability fund towards it’s intended purpose.”

“Families throughout our state are met with the toughest decision: should I buy food, or pay my medical bills? As nearly a tenth of New Mexico’s population is about to lose insurance, as well as millions of Americans, more families will have faced the question, what is my life worth? New Mexico can lead the way in expanding coverage and access to healthcare. My family knows what it means when we face that question and don’t have access. Loved ones die,” said Sena.

Advocates stated nearly 200,000 New Mexicans are either uninsured or underinsured.

KRQE reached out to the Senators who sponsored the bill last year about the use of some of the funds for other programs, but we have not gotten a response.