Lovelace, Avalon pitch their plan

By Julia M. Dendinger

An out-of-state developer looking to expand health care options in Valencia County is encouraging residents to push county commissioners to hear his proposal.

Jim Gilbert, Avalon Development chairman and CEO, along with Lovelace Chief Operating Officer Janelle Raborn hosted two town hall meetings last week to pitch yet another idea for health care services in Valencia County.

After a mill levy was approved in 2006, it looked like the community was on its way to building a brand new hospital. Instead the project has been mired in repeated litigation, right up until the current day as yet another lawsuit over the use of the levy sits in the New Mexico Court of Appeals awaiting a decision. This particular bit of litigation is a three-way contest between the village of Los Lunas, city of Belen and Valencia County.

In May 2014, Second Judicial District Court Judge Valerie Huling ruled that the village did not have standing to bring a case against Belen and the county because Los Lunas hasn’t suffered any harm from the county’s decision to enter into a contract with a health care provider of the Belen City Council’s choosing. The judge said the commission’s decision to award about $22 million in county-generated mill levy funds to a Belen hospital project didn’t cause Los Lunas harm, and that it was too speculative that it did. Huling then granted the motions to dismiss the case.

A month after Huling’s ruling, Los Lunas filed an appeal, arguing that it did indeed have standing in the case. The matter is still pending before the Court of Appeals.

At the town hall meeting Thursday evening, Gilbert encouraged residents to attend the next two commission meetings — 5 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 12, and Aug. 19 — and speak up during the public comment part of the agenda, to pressure the commissioners to put the discussion of the Avalon and Lovelace plan on a future agenda.

So far, commissioners have demurred hearing from Gilbert and Lovelace, several saying they didn’t want to bring new plans to the table until the current legal case is settled.

The idea Lovelace and Avalon are pitching is a two-facility approach — a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week emergency room facility in Los Lunas and a wellness center in Belen, open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The wellness center would offer health programs, free screenings, workshops on a range of health topics, fitness activities, as well as activities for fun, Raborn explained to the 16 or so people present at the Los Lunas Transit Center Thursday evening.

The 24-hour, freestanding emergency room in Los Lunas would be a licensed hospital, Raborn said, with board certified personnel, staffed by emergency medicine physicians and nurses.

It would be adjacent to a proposed nursing school, have laboratory services, radiology services such as x-rays, CT scans and ultrasound. The facility could also be easily expanded to add inpatient beds if the need arose in the future, Raborn said.

The ER in Los Lunas would be linked to the services provided at the wellness center in Belen, she said. For instance, if someone was brought to the emergency room because of a fall, once released, they would be referred to the wellness center for fall prevention education.

“The main issue we see in Valencia County is there are not enough sub specialists,” Raborn said. “We could provide office space for visiting specialists who will have routine office hours here.”

Belen Mayor Jerah Cordova attended the Thursday town-hall meeting and his assessment was that Lovelace hadn’t decided what it wants to do in Valencia County.

“They started with a regional medical center, downgraded to an urgent care and wellness center, then amplify it back to an ER,” Cordova said. “I’m not sure what they are trying to propose and I don’t think they’ve decided what they want here. They seem to just throw darts at the board and see what sticks.”

The mayor said the court appeal case was a matter separate from the newly proposed facilities.

“Obviously, the reason for the lawsuits have been to delay and make something happen in Los Lunas,” he said, “and that is certainly serving the purpose for Lovelace.

“Hopefully, the village will decide it no longer wants to pursue this and the county made its decision and we can move forward in Belen.”

Cordova said one thing that stood out very strongly during the presentation was that Avalon and Lovelace made it very clear they needed the mill levy to move forward.

“Nothing short of a hospital qualifies for the mill levy,” the Belen mayor said. “I was shocked to hear them say they were not building a hospital but it would be licensed as a hospital.

“The mill levy use is based on the Hospital Funding Act; it very clearly defined what a hospital is and Lovelace has stated they are not building a hospital.”

The referendum passed by the public in 2006, pledged the 2.75 mill levy to operate and maintain a hospital/24-hour emergency room in Valencia County.

Cordova said a lot is riding on that “slash” separating a full-blown hospital from a 24-hour ER.

“There’s not a lot of confidence. This is not being presented with the concern for health care in Valencia County; it is presented as a way for (Avalon) to provide revenue for its housing community,” the mayor said. “Frankly, it’s very disappointing to talk about such an important project as an effort to build more houses.”

In previous interviews, and at the meeting Thursday, Texas-based developer Gilbert said the ER in Los Lunas would be a boon to the housing development he is part owner of — Jubilee. Gilbert said the investors in Jubilee have projected that a medical facility in the vicinity would attract people to the subdivision.

“I’m no Boy Scout. Yes, this will benefit Jubilee,” Gilbert said. “Avalon, as a developer, won’t be getting a penny; mill levy money in New Mexico cannot be used for development, only operational. This is a way to get Valencia County a start and one day be added to, baby steps.”

People in the audience had the eternal question: Would the new facilities accept their insurance?

Raborn said when it came to the ER, yes, as required by law, the facility would provide care regardless of ability to pay or insurance type.

“We plan to work with all the insurance plan in the community,” she said.

Raborn said she envisioned having better luck negotiating with Presbyterian as a payor, especially since Lovelace sold its health insurance plans in 2013.

“We used to go head to head,” she said.

According to a press release on Lovelace’s website in November 2013, Lovelace Health System reached an agreement for Health Care Service Corporation to acquire Lovelace Health Plan.

Rio Communities resident and long-time hospital advocate Clark Metcalf asked Raborn and Gilbert just how important the mill levy was to the success of the project.

“Would you need part of it? Is is all or nothing?” Metcalf asked.

Gilbert said they hadn’t considered sharing the levy.

“Lovelace won’t move forward without the mill levy and I won’t move forward without Lovelace,” he said.

One man asked if there would be inpatient beds at the ER, to which Raborn said there would not be in the beginning.

“We are required to be licensed as a hospital so that allows for quick expansion if we need it,” she said.

In a follow-up email asking Raborn to clarify whether the ER needed to be licensed as a hospital due to state regulations or in order to access the mill levy funds, she said the licensure did not relate to the mill levy funds.

“Technically, the (state) department of health surveys for compliance with federal and state regulations. They are given deemed status to survey organizations by Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, however, CMS may additionally survey hospitals to ensure compliance with federal requirements,” Raborn responded via email. “Additionally, we must be compliant with state regulations that govern hospital operations.”

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