New Mexico's Top 10 Public Health Stories In 2013
KUNM Public Health New Mexico reporter Marisa Demarco breaks it down with the highlights of public health news for 2013.
10. Childhood Obesity Declines
It's the first good news in a while on this front: among 2- to 4- year olds in New Mexico, the obesity rate is dropping. Some attribute the positive trend to new programs supporting locally grown produce. WIC clients can get about $30 a week to spend in farmers markets, and SNAP is accepted at such markets, as well. El Centro Family Health Clinic in Española offers prescription vouchers for about $35 a week to help combat obesity, and resulting data should help farmers petition state lawmakers for boosting these fresh, local food initiatives.
9. U.S. Ranked High for Plague
The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene ranked the United States No. 11 on a list of reported plague cases by country. And where do people in the U.S. contract the bubonic plague? New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, California and Texas. In fact, half of all plague cases in the States come out of the Land of Enchantment. Paul Ettestad with the state's Department of Health attributes that to regions of our state with lots of piñon and juniper trees, which are home to a variety of fleas and rodents.
8. Squier: No Hunger in N.M.
Human Services Department Secretary Sidonie Squier was heavily criticized for an email that was sent to other administrators. In it, she wrote: "… there has never been and is not any any significant evidence of hunger in N.M. … " and suggested the state's Hunger Task Force should not "just expand every government food program in existence." Activists and politicians around the state jumped on the statement, citing studies and poor national rankings. For instance, Feeding America, a national nonprofit affiliated with the local Roadrunner Food Bank, named New Mexico worst for food insecurity among youths in 2013. Squier eventually conceded that her email was badly phrased, and said that ensuring that children have access to meals is among her chief priorities.
7. Human Trafficking on the Rise
The black-market buying and selling of people is a growing business in New Mexico. “A very significant proportion of young people who get involved in human trafficking are very young teenagers, and often, they are runaways,” said David Pederson with the Attorney General’s Office. Human trafficking is evolving in the Southwest from pimp-prostitute relationships to intricate schemes run by cartels and gangs, according to activists, who aim to stop the rise of what is essentially slavery. The AG's Office has prosecuted 15 human trafficking cases in New Mexico, and says all of those are so far related to individual entrepreneurs, not large organizations.
6. Veterans Protest Slow Health Services
Members of the military and their families gathered in Albuquerque to express their frustration with health care once they return home. Veterans with combat disorders spoke out about the slow treatment for PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and military sexual assault. New Mexico advocates said veterans were facing three- to six-month waits to see doctors and so wound up using ERs for primary care. In June, the Department of Veterans Affairs was slogging through a backlog of more than 600,000 applications for coverage nationally.
5. Short on Dentists
There are around 1,100 practicing dentists in the state, but that's not enough. New Mexico is experiencing a dental health care shortage, due in part to its rural nature. There is also not a school of dentistry in the state, which was ranked the fourth worst in the country for its gap in tooth care. About 24 percent of residents live in an underserved area of New Mexico—five counties don't have a practicing dentist: Guadalupe, Harding, Hidalgo, Mora and Union. To top it all off, more than a third of N.M. dentists are nearing retirement age, according to a report from the Pew Charitable Trust released in 2013.
4. Heroin Seeps Into the State
New Mexico is No. 1 in the country for drug overdose deaths; we've held that spot on and off since 1992. In 2013, heroin became cheaper, purer and easier to buy than ever. People start their addiction process with prescription drugs, but move to heroin because it's inexpensive and available, according to District Attorney Kari Brandenburg. With a decline in heroin production in South America, neighbor Mexico has cornered the market, producing five times more than it used to over the last decade. “There’s more consumers, unfortunately, that are demanding that product,” said Eduardo Chavez with the Drug Enforcement Administration in Albuquerque.
3. LANL Researchers Fight HIV
A study conducted on 36 monkeys helped Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists discover a breakthrough in developing an HIV vaccine. They tested a mosaic vaccine, which is designed to react to many kinds of HIV viruses. “HIV evolves incredibly quickly,” said LANL scientist Bette Korber. “It evolves in every single infected person." The test monkeys who were treated with the mosaic showed resistance to HIV. The LANL scientists said the next step is to begin testing human response.
2. Behavioral Health Agencies Ousted
This story dominated many a news story in 2013, and it's likely to be the subject of many more this year. Medicaid funding was frozen in June for 15 behavioral health providers in New Mexico, and emergency contracts went out to five Arizona companies, who took over. The Human Services Department said allegations of fraud—$33.8 million in overpayments—justified the takeover. The allegations stem from an audit conducted by an out-of-state company called PCG. State Auditor Hector Balderas was ordered to review the results, but he says the Human Services Department altered the document before it was sent to him. What was removed? An earlier, partial-release said PGC "did not uncover what it would consider to be credible allegations of fraud."
1. Problems With Healthcare.gov
The last thing President Obama's controversial health care plan needed was tech problems, but large-scale failure for online signups plagued healthcare.gov's launch. The Congressional Budget Office predicted 7 million people would register for health care over the course of six months. Unfortunately, people who attempted to enroll were often met with roadblocks and the online equivalent of impossibly long lines. Healthcare.gov was defective and backward. Obama was steamed. And it looked like the expensive team tasked with developing the online registration site was leaderless and lacked big-picture vision. But 2014 is seeing some changes: On Friday, Jan. 10, it was announced that the main IT contractor, CGI Federal, would be fired from the project.