March 11, 2023

House committee approves bill to create unified health care authority

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

A bill that would blend several divisions from various state agencies into a new health care authority is moving closer to reality.

Members of the House Health and Human Services Committee voted 6-3 along party lines to approve Senate Bill 16, which would allow the state to lay out a plan to rename the Human Services Department as the Health Care Authority Department and add a number of health-related entities from other state agencies. 

The refashioned department would be charged with finding and buying the most affordable health care plans for state and public employees and their family members.

There are 180,000 public and state members enrolled in the public employee benefit plans who benefit from health insurance offerings negotiated by the state, according to Department of Human Services data. 

The legislation — prompted by a call from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to create a state health authority — would not affect health care plans or costs for private or nonprofit businesses or those who work for them. 

Bill co-sponsor Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, told committee members during Friday’s hearing that different departments and divisions within those departments, are purchasing health care plans on their own.

“Each entity has the authority to purchase [health care],” she said. “They are not required to act together. They all go out to the RFP [request for proposals] together, but they are not required to purchase the same thing.”

Gina DeBlassie, the health adviser for the governor, said in an interview after the hearing the goal of the consolidation is to “really leverage the volume of public employees to drive down the cost [of health care plans] for the employees as well as the state.”

DeBlassie said the authority will establish a single department responsible for health care purchasing, regulation, oversight and policy. Such consolidations under a single department are becoming more popular around the country, according to a 2019 National Academy of State Health Policy report. 

The report says states have “the potential to leverage better prices.” It also recommends picking a lead agency to spearhead cross-agency planning, including inventorying health care plans, enrollment and costs. 

The report cited some examples from around the country, including the creation of a Health Care Cabinet in Connecticut and an Office of Saving People Money in Health Care in Colorado, which work to reduce health care costs for state employees. 

The bill under consideration gives the Governor’s Office, in tandem with state agencies, the ability to create a transition plan. It also calls for the Developmental Disabilities and Health Improvement Division at the state Department of Health and the Health Division of the General Services Department to be moved into the refashioned agency. 

The three Republican lawmakers on the House committee said much remains unclear about the plan — one reason they voted against it Friday.

“This is not a simple transfer; there’s a lot of stuff going on,” Rep. Stefani Lord, R-Sandia Park, said to Stefanics. 

Rep. Kathleen Cates, D-Rio Rancho, who voted for the bill, acknowledged it was “a complex piece of legislation we’re all trying to wrap our arms around.”

The legislation has cleared the Senate and next goes to the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee. If approved, it then would then go to the floor of the House for a final vote.