By Marisa Demarco
—As the public health team debated the top stories we covered last year, we couldn’t narrow it down to just 10. And when you get right down to it, 10 is kind of an arbitrary number.
Of course there was other public health news that didn’t make our list but captured public attention last year—like Ebola (no cases in N.M.) or the medical cannabis regulation debate (ongoing).
These eleven were most central in our reporting and thinking.
11. Supreme Court Contraception Ruling
Hobby Lobby objected to the mandate within the Affordable Care Act that companies offer coverage for contraception. And in June, the Supreme Court made a landmark ruling in the craft retailer’s favor. Many have decried the decision as a violation of gender-equity health care rights, while others argue private companies should be able to make such decisions based on religious beliefs. In late December, Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D-Seattle), sponsored a bill in the Washington State Legislature that attempts to combat the ruling.
10. Solitary Confinement And The Mentally Ill
Is it safe or humane to put mentally ill people into solitary confinement? That was the question asked around the country in 2014. The practice was attacked via the court system, and 10 states changed their policies or, as is the case in New Mexico, pledged to reduce the use of segregation. A series of lawsuits in our sate also put pressure on jails and prisons to evaluate how segregation is used on mentally ill inmates.
Solitary Confinement in New Mexico, a Public Health New Mexico web exclusive series
9. Behavioral Health Audit
One of the biggest stories two years ago was the behavioral health shakeup, the consequences of which carried into 2014. At issue: the audit that caused 15 N.M. behavioral health firms to have their funding suspended. In August, a District Court Judge in Doña Ana County ruled that the audit would not be made available to the public, as the investigation was ongoing. In September, KUNM partner organization New Mexico In Depth appealed the ruling along with the Las Cruces Sun-News. It was also discovered that when Presbyterian Medical Services—one of the 15 providers—tried to present evidence to refute allegations of Medicaid fraud, the audit firm PCG did not want the records. Nor did PGC allow other providers the opportunity to counter its findings.
8. Veterans Affairs Revelations
In May, New Mexico’s Veteran Affairs facility became one of 26 under federal investigation. Two months later, a veteran collapsed in the cafeteria of Albuquerque’s VA, and he died there—just 500 yards from the ER—while waiting for an ambulance. His death was a shocking example of long waits at the VA for treatment. A national review by Deputy White House Chief of Staff Rob Nabors found the VA system lacking countrywide. A doctor in New Mexico’s VA hospital spoke anonymously about secret waiting lists. Members of Congress questioned New Mexico’s VA staffers in August, and a new director was installed at the end of the year.
7. Trinity Test Cancer Research
The National Cancer Institute announced that it would come to New Mexico last year to look into how much radiation 19,000 locals were exposed to in 1945 when the U.S. Army detonated a nuclear weapon for the first time in their backyard. The explosion went 7.5 miles into the atmosphere, and a few hours later, it rained. The CDC confirmed a few years ago that New Mexicans consumed radiation via water, milk, meat and produce grown in the state afterward. Tina Cordova of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium told KUNM that people in and around her hometown have been dying from cancers and other health conditions ever since.
6. Physician Aid In Dying Becomes Legal In N.M.
At the very beginning of the year, District Court Judge Nan Nash ruled that it’s legal for doctors in New Mexico to prescribe medication so patients suffering with terminal illnesses could choose to end their own lives. Two doctors and a patient filed a complaint asking for clarification on state statues, which outlaw assisted suicide but don’t cover what’s been termed “aid in dying.” The distinction is that with the latter, the patient self-administers the medication.
5. Increased Health Insurance In New Mexico
Phil Schiliro, a Santa Fe resident, was the adviser to President Obama on the Affordable Care Act. He told KUNM that New Mexico lagged behind almost all other states in terms of enrollment. But after the March 31 deadline, more than 51,000 people had signed up for health insurance through the New Mexico Health Exchange by the end of March, and more than 100,000 had enrolled in Medicaid. The open enrollment period for 2015 will end on Feb. 15, and this round, around 41,000 people have signed up so far.
4. Health Care At the Artesia Immigrant Detention Facility
A detention facility was established in Artesia, N.M., in late June to house some of the many Central American families caught crossing the border. A legal group accused the facility of failing to provide medical care and legal counsel, and said immigration officials were speeding up pregnant women’s deportation. Neighbors of the facility expressed fears that the immigrants brought with them disease and lacked vaccines. But a doctor who visited the center said those concerns were unfounded, though he criticized the lack of mental health care services for a population he called “traumatized.” Records also showed the facility may not have been a licensed child care facility. The detention center was closed at the end of the year, and more than two-thirds of the immigrants were released.
Three teenagers were accused of beating two Navajo homeless men to death in Albuquerque last summer. Advocates protested and said the brutal killing spotlighted violence against Native Americans in New Mexico. Mayor Richard Berry traveled to Window Rock, Arizona, to meet with Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and form a task force. People also began talking about legislation that classifies violence against homeless people as a hate crime. A bill to that effect has been prefiled for the 2015 session by Sen. Bill O’Neill (D-Albuquerque).
2. APD And Mental Health
Albuquerque Police Department officers shot and killed mentally ill homeless man James Boyd who was camping in the Sandia Foothills in March. Video of the shooting touched off large protests, which re-ignited all year long as shootings continued. Questions emerged about whether officers trained in crisis intervention were at the scene, and the families of people with mental health issues talked about their fear of calling 911 in emergency situations. The Department of Justice concluded its investigation into APD in April, and the resulting report outlined a pattern and practice of excessive force. Two officers involved in the Boyd shooting are being charged with murder.
1. WIPP Leak
New Mexico’s underground pit—where the U.S. buries its radioactive waste—sprung a leak on Valentine’s Day. Workers were contaminated, and the site shut down. Department of Energy investigators pointed to an erosion of safety culture over time. The state issued $54 million in fines, but the federal government is contesting the amount as “arbitrary.” A federal report has criticized WIPP’s emergency plans and indicated the ventilation system is inadequate. Recovery at the site is also lagging despite promises of a re-opening within the next year or so.
Sneak peak: 2015 already promises investigations from our team on water and air quality, mental health issues within the criminal justice system, as well as a series on the oil and gas industry in New Mexico.