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ABQ Journal

By Astrid Galvan/Journal Staff Writer

Lovelace Health System has come out against the University of New Mexico Hospital’s proposed new $146 million hospital, offering instead to make beds available at its own downtown location.

“We can tell you this as far as Lovelace is concerned — given the current health care environment, a new big hospital in the downtown area is not what is needed at this point,” Lovelace president and CEO Ron Stern said in a letter to Bernalillo County Commissioner Wayne Johnson that was released Tuesday.

Instead, UNMH should enter into a bed-sharing agreement in which Lovelace would take patients at Lovelace Medical Center when UNMH’s emergency room was full.

UNMH’s ER, the only Level 1 trauma center in the state, is consistently crowded, with wait times that can exceed 24 hours, according to data provided by the hospital.

UNM Health Sciences chancellor Paul Roth said Tuesday the hospital has had no discussions with Lovelace on the matter and that the proposed agreement would violate federal rules. It also would have no impact on the need for a new hospital, UNM says.

“Hospital beds are not like hotel rooms. Your condition determines where you should be as a patient and that requires teams of people working together for you,” UNMH spokesman Billy Sparks said.

The proposal is the latest in the uphill battle to get approval for the new UNM hospital. The state Board of Finance has delayed acting on the hospital proposal and is scheduled to consider it again in April.

Various city and county officials have lined up in support while other groups have challenged it.

Johnson, meanwhile, has questioned whether the county should continue to allocate $90 million in annual property tax revenue to the hospital, which has accumulated enough cash surplus to pay for the construction of the new facility.

Lovelace also chimed in on that question, saying it “may no longer be appropriate that one institution receives the entirety of the mill levy when other institutions bear similar costs.”

Johnson led a discussion at the Bernalillo County Commission meeting Tuesday on the tax question. The money is for indigent care, although UNM says it is also for operations and maintenance in general.

Stern said Lovelace and Presbyterian health care also bear the costs of care for people who can’t pay, totaling more than $82 million a year for Lovelace.

Stern said because the federal Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, is intended to ease “the load on emergency rooms and hospital stays, it may be advantageous to UNMH to enter into this bed-sharing agreement until the effects of the legislation become clear, perhaps in four or five years.”

He said that such an agreement would ease overcrowding at UNMH and help relieve the need for the proposed adult care hospital west of the current UNMH location on Lomas and Interstate 25.

“We have observed as UNMH has proposed building a $146 million new hospital in the downtown area,” the letter to Johnson said. “It seems to us that because taxpayer money is involved in this case, the health systems ought to do their best to create the most efficient network of facilities, to minimize the costs to taxpayers.”

Asked for the number of beds that would be available at Lovelace, a hospital official said it was a “substantial” number.

But Stern said Lovelace would give priority to patients who are members of its insurance program ahead of others.

Roth and Sparks said that would violate rules set forth by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the federal agency that administers Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

“You can never transfer a patient based on their insurance coverage,” Sparks said.

Stephen Forney, vice president and chief financial officer for Lovelace Health System, said in an email that the agreement would not violate any federal statutes and that transfer agreements already exist.

“We are talking about taking elective surgical and medical patients before they even get to UNMH, to stop overcrowding. …,” he said. Elective surgeries are those that are scheduled ahead of time, as opposed to emergencies. The removal of a cancerous tumor is an example.

Sparks said, “The specialized clinical care that we provide in our hospital is unique to UNMH.”

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