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Funding could be health council ‘game-changer’

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Proposed legislation could give the Chaves County Health Council significantly more funding each year.

Additional funding would be a “game-changer,” says Jennifer Smith, coordinator for the Chaves County Health Council. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

If passed during the 2019 session of the New Mexico Legislature, a bill now called the County and Tribal Health Council Act would divide about $1 million in funding between the state’s 39 councils. Each council, including the one in Chaves County, would receive about $26,000 a year.

The bill is intended to restore appropriations that existed prior to 2010, said A. Terrie Rodriguez, executive director of the New Mexico Alliance of Health Councils.

She said that state general funding used to be between $1 million and $2 million annually, but New Mexico budget difficulties led to the end of the general fund appropriations.

Officially organized councils now split a total of about $178,000 a year received from the New Mexico Department of Health, she said, which means each qualifying council is allocated about $4,500 a year.

“That’s basically enough to do a list of resources or one health fair rather than what they are supposed to do, which is the assessment and planning of all the social determinants of health in their communities,” she said.

For many councils, she said, the first step in that effort might be to hire a part-time coordinator.

The health councils were established in 1991 by the Maternal and Child Health Plan Act. That was amended in 2007 to allow for tribal councils, which now total six. The councils are meant to coordinate health services at the local level, because New Mexico has a centralized state health department unlike some other states that have locally governed health boards. The councils are tasked with gathering health providers together, coordinating and communicating with each other and community organizations, assessing community needs, building partnerships and taking action to promote health and wellness.

In 2018, Senate Memorial 44 called for the formation of a task force to develop the report and its recommendations as part of an effort to strengthen and improve the councils.

According to the task force report issued in August, the councils typically raised about $4 for every $1 in state funding when they were fully funded and had paid staff to organize activities, and they had proven successes is promoting healthful behaviors by taking such actions as creating pedestrian and biking trails and providing healthy food in so-called “food deserts.”

Rodriguez said the alliance has been working for about two years to rebuilt the network of councils.

“Really what we wanted to do was re-establish the structure and the support system for the health councils that had been in place before all the funding went away. We are looking at best practices and ways to get information out,” Rodriguez said. “So many health councils are facing the same kinds of situations and issues in their communities, and when they see other counties that are relatively the same size with the same demographics, it is really helpful rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.”

Jennifer Smith, a newly hired part-time coordinator for the Chaves County Health Council, said that additional financing could be a “game-changer,” allowing the council to implement its ideas and plans.

“I believe the legislation will help to improve how health councils, especially in rural areas, are managed,” she wrote in an email. “Health council members are volunteers, including the executive branch of the council. Consequently many people want to help by volunteering to be on the council, and we see that they want to provide assistance with the projects and activities to improve our community, but when there is no one to manage the council from the onset, many projects suffer and oftentimes are not implemented.”

One of the projects the local group wants to complete, she said, is a directory of health and wellness providers in the region. The group also wants to focus on increasing membership and raising money for community projects.

The bill is expected to be introduced to the state legislative chambers by Rep. Liz Thomson (D-Albuquerque) and Sen. Liz Stefanics (D-Cerrillos).

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.