Belen, Los Lunas Vie for Hospital

Artist’s rendering of a proposed hospital in Belen. It would be owned by a private nonprofit and managed by Ameris Health Systems of Nashville, Tenn. (Photo Courtesy of Dekker/Perich/Sabatini)

Commissioners must choose between two competing proposals for a planned Valencia Regional Medical Center, setting off a rivalry between Belen and Los Lunas, which both want the hospital.

Officials in the two cities tout the advantages of their respective plans, both of which would built and financed by out-of-state development firms.

The proposed Los Lunas hospital would be a for-profit hospital owned by Oklahoma City-based Miller Architects and operated by Lovelace Health System.

The Belen hospital would be owned by a private nonprofit overseen by a local board of directors and managed by Ameris Health Systems of Nashville, Tenn.

Much of the public debate has focused on a property tax approved by Valencia County voters in 2006 that both hospitals say they need to help pay for operating costs or services that are not covered by insurance plans.

“Valencia County is on the cusp of a huge opportunity to provide better access to healthcare services for county residents, and beyond,” Los Lunas Mayor Robert Vialpando wrote in a letter supporting his city’s plan for a $60 million, 24-bed hospital, with capability to expand to 48 beds.

The bulk of the county’s 77,000 residents live in northern Valencia County, making the Los Lunas site accessible to more people, he said.

“We really feel that we have the edge,” Vialpando said.

But Belen officials say their more southerly location is an advantage for their proposal, a $50 million, 40-bed hospital.

Because Belen is 33 miles from the nearest hospital in Albuquerque, it would qualify for higher Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements under a federal provision to aid rural hospitals, said Steven Tomita, Belen’s planning and economic development director.

Valencia County is the fourth most-populated county in the nation that lacks a hospital, said Frank Schupp, vice president of business development at Ameris Health Systems.

Valencia County has lacked a hospital since 1990 when Presbyterian Health Services closed the Valencia Presbyterian Hospital in Belen, just months after voters rejected a property tax levy to help support it.

Artist’s rendering of a proposed for-profit hospital in Los Lunas owned by Oklahoma City-based Miller Architects and operated by Lovelace Health System. (Photo Courtesy of miller architects)

Schupp said he has secured letters from 40 New Mexico physicians who want practice privileges at the Belen Hospital. That support is critical, he said.

“Doctors can make or break a hospital,” he said. “I can’t get a hospital financed anywhere without prior physician interest.”

The Los Lunas hospital, if built, would become one of seven hospitals operated by Lovelace Health System, said Janelle Raborn, chief operating officer at Lovelace Women’s Hospital. Lovelace contracts with physician practice groups to staff its hospitals.

All agree that Valencia County can support only one hospital.

A property tax approved by voters to help support a county hospital gives the Valencia County Commission the leverage to decide which proposal is built, Commissioner Donald Holliday said.
The property tax, which raises an estimated $3 million a year, will be reconsidered by voters in 2014. It has raised about $15 million to date.

Officials on both sides also say they need money from a property tax approved by Valencia County voters in 2006 to help pay for operating costs and services that aren’t covered by insurance plans.

Losing the property tax revenue “would be a deal breaker for Ameris and for Miller (Architects) also,” Tomita said.

Developers each presented an hourlong proposal to the commission last month, but commissioners have given no indication when they will make a decision. Some commissioners favor hiring a consultant to review both proposals and recommend one, Holliday said.

Commissioners expressed a preference for Belen’s proposal in September by approving a joint-powers agreement between Belen and Valencia County authorizing use of the property tax money for the Belen hospital’s operating costs.

The state Department of Finance and Administration recently added a complication by questioning the legality of the joint-powers agreement.

The DFA’s Jan. 24 letter questions the legality of issuing revenue bonds and appropriate property tax money to build and support the hospital, among other issues. The DFA must approve the joint-powers agreement.

The two sides disagree about the implications of the DFA’s objections.

Darin Miller, founder and CEO of Miller Architects, said the DFA’s objections render the joint-powers agreement a “dead letter.” Holliday, who favors Belen’s proposal, called the DFA’s objections “minor stuff.”

Tomita said Belen’s city attorney is preparing a response to issues raised by the DFA.

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