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FRI: Officials urge renewal as pandemic medicaid ends, Green chile production rises, + More

New Mexico seeks to avoid coverage gap for Medicaid patientsAssociated Press

A federal pandemic-related requirement that states offer continuous health care coverage for Medicaid recipients is coming to an end today, meaning nearly 980,000 people in New Mexico will have to renew coverage when their applications are due, officials said.

Officials with the state Human Services Department are urging people to renew their applications to avoid having a gap in health care coverage.

The first batch of recipients will be receiving bright turquoise envelopes in the mail in the coming days as part of the state's awareness campaign.

The state plans to focus first on those who likely will no longer be eligible for benefits due to their income levels. State data shows that could be as many as 110,000 people. Those who are over the income limit will be referred to the state's health care exchange where they can find coverage at reduced rates.

"The reason this is so important is that people have health care needs," said Kari Armijo, acting secretary of the state Human Services Department. "If they're transitioning off of Medicaid coverage, we don't want them to go without health insurance. We really want to make sure we minimize any gaps in coverage so that people don't have unmet health care needs."

The federal government has given states 12 months to process all Medicaid renewals. New Mexico began sending out renewal packets in mid-March for those whose applications are due in April.

The state is also asking providers to help notify recipients about the renewal process with flyers, posters, emails, texts and social media posts.

Governor signs bill making menstrual products free in public schoolsKUNM, Albuquerque Journal

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill yesterday that that puts free menstrual products in the bathrooms of all public schools.

The Albuquerque Journal reports it was one of a slew of bills signed by the governor, who has until April 7 to sign bills passed in the legislative session.

Supporters say the bill will help address period poverty, which directly affects the ability of young people to consistently access education.

A national study found that more than 4 in 5 teens have missed class or know someone who has because they couldn’t get access to menstrual products.

The bill had widespread support except for a small group of Republicans who feared that having menstrual products in male restrooms creates a path towards having “unified” bathrooms.

Get it while it's hot: New Mexico boosts chile production — Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico produced more than 53,000 tons of its most famous crop during the last growing season, meaning more chile peppers found their way into salsas and onto dinner plates than the previous year.

State and federal agriculture officials rolled out the latest numbers this week as New Mexico's governor signed legislation that established the sweet smell of green chile roasting in the fall as the state's official aroma.

New Mexico's love affair with the hot peppers runs deep. Chile is one of the official state vegetables, it's on license plates and it forms the basis of the state's official question: "Red or Green?"

The state in 2014 even adopted its own trademark and certification program to protect the reputation and integrity of its signature crop, much like Idaho has capitalized on potatoes, Maine has its lobsters and Florida has its fresh fruits and juices.

The numbers released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture show that more than 90% of the chile produced in 2022 was of the green variety.

The value of the crop was estimated at more than $46 million, about $1 million more than in 2021. Chile used for processing — for salsas, sauces and spices, for example — account for most of that value while fresh chile brought in about $4.4 million.

While production was up, the land used for planting was actually less than in 2021. That's because farmers are seeing higher yields from their crops due to irrigation and cultivation improvements, said Travis Day, executive director of the New Mexico Chile Association.

He said the latest figures are exciting news for the industry, which has faced its share of market and labor challenges in recent years.

"Our members are finally seeing normality after the COVID pandemic and labor, while still an issue, is slowly getting better," he said.

Day also pointed out that more farmers outside southern New Mexico's chile-growing belt are having success with peppers. About three-fifths of last year's production came from counties other than Sierra, Doña Ana and Luna counties.

Doña Ana County is home to Hatch, a village at the edge of the Rio Grande that has come to be known as the "Chile Capital of the World." Researchers at New Mexico State University have long said that soil conditions, warmer temperatures, the right amount of water and a longer growing season in the region result in a unique flavor.

Farmers are expecting a strong season this year — as long as the weather cooperates.

Forecasts calling for more moisture could help increase the availability of irrigation supplies, but Day warned that standing water in fields increases the potential for wilt and root rot diseases that could affect the harvest in late July and early August.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy to join Las Cruces rally for Herrell — Associated Press

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy will visit New Mexico next month at what will likely be an announcement by former U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell to campaign for her old seat.

The Roswell Daily Record reported Friday that McCarthy will attend a rally April 10 for Herrell at the Heritage Farm & Ranch Museum in Las Cruces.

"I'm inviting you to join Speaker Kevin McCarthy and me in Las Cruces as we launch a new campaign to restore our values and flip this district," Herrell wrote on her campaign Facebook page this week.

Paul Smith, a spokesperson for Herrell, confirmed to the newspaper a campaign announcement will take place but offered no other details.

The Republican from Alamogordo, who represented the 2nd Congressional District since 2021, lost re-election last year to Democrat Gabe Vasquez by 1,350 votes.

She filed a statement of candidacy with the Federal Elections Commission just two weeks after the loss. The filing would permit her to raise funds in the 2024 election cycle.

A representative for Vasquez did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the newspaper.

The 2nd Congressional District includes the state's eastern border with Texas to its western border with Arizona and from southern Albuquerque down to communities along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Court to weigh Baldwin codefendant's plea on weapons charge Associated Press

A judge is scheduled to resolve a weapons-related charge Friday against a codefendant in the case against actor Alec Baldwin for the fatal 2021 shooting of a cinematographer on a movie set.

Prosecutors announced in January a proposed plea agreement with safety coordinator and assistant director David Halls regarding his responsibilities in the Western movie "Rust" and the death of Halyna Hutchins.

Halls has pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of negligent or unsafe use of a deadly weapon, pending a court review of the plea proposal. Complete terms of the agreement have not been made public.

Halls is likely to be sentenced Friday if State District Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer authorizes the plea agreement.

Baldwin and movie armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed have pleaded not guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter that carry a maximum penalty of 18 months in prison and fines.

Hutchins died shortly after she was shot Oct. 21, 2021, during rehearsals at a ranch on the outskirts of Santa Fe. Baldwin was pointing a pistol being used in the production at Hutchins when the weapon went off and a single live round killed her and wounded director Joel Souza.

In separate regulatory proceedings, workplace safety authorities have asserted Halls shared responsibility for identifying and correcting any hazardous conditions related to firearms safety in the movie's production. They contend Halls handed Baldwin the revolver that was loaded with what were assumed to be dummy rounds.

A weekslong preliminary hearing in May will decide whether evidence against Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed is sufficient to proceed to trial.

Santa Fe's district attorney this week appointed two special prosecutors, Kari Morrissey and Jason Lewis.

The original special prosecutor, Andrea Reeb, resigned in the wake of missteps in the filing of initial charges against Baldwin and objections that Reeb's role as a state legislator created conflicting responsibilities.

Republican leaders seek federal inquiry of New Mexico claims – Associated Press

Republican legislative leaders in New Mexico are asking the federal government to investigate two divisions in the state Health Department amid allegations of abuse, neglect and exploitation of developmentally disabled people.

The GOP House leaders sent a letter Wednesday to the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, saying an independent investigation would ensure transparency and might prompt the state to take necessary steps to prevent such cases in the future.

"Unfortunately, the state of New Mexico has a rather dismal record of protecting vulnerable populations who are under the care of state agencies and who receive needed services through state administered programs," the letter states. "These recently discovered cases of alleged abuse, neglect and exploitation create a new round of questions and concerns."

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has called the allegations horrific, issuing a warning last week that caregivers who mistreat and abuse developmentally disabled or otherwise vulnerable people will be held accountable by the state.

The governor and top health officials confirmed there was an ongoing investigation into an alleged abuse and neglect case involving a developmentally disabled person that was brought to the state's attention March 1.

That case resulted in the state terminating contracts with four providers in the Albuquerque area. It also prompted what the governor described as a forensic review of the entire developmentally disabled waiver system, which is meant to offer an alternative to institutional care.

Five more cases — including three in which individuals being cared for died — are also under investigation. Officials have said they haven't determined if those deaths are tied to abuse or neglect.

State officials also were looking at several other potential cases following visits by health workers to clients who participate in the federally funded waiver program. More than 6,600 people receive services from one of the state's five developmental disabilities programs.

The GOP lawmakers said the incidents of neglect and abuse seem to be related to system failures of various home and community based programs that fall under the purview of the Developmental Disabilities Supports Division and Division of Health Improvement, which report to the Health Department.

Jodi McGinnis Porter, a department spokeswoman, wrote in an email to the Santa Fe New Mexican that the department shared the legislators' concerns.

"It's exactly why we initiated our own comprehensive internal review of the system and processes to improve quality management of provider agencies, Medicaid oversight, and monitoring of services for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are supported by our Developmental Disabilities Waiver programs," she wrote.

The department has contracted with a law firm to investigate processes and recommend improvements.

McGinnis Porter said the department will cooperate with the federal inspector general should that office choose to investigate as well.

"Put simply, we want to use every resource available to ensure that disabled clients in DD Waiver programs are well cared for and that every allegation of abuse, neglect, and Medicaid fraud is fully investigated," she wrote.

Governor signs bill expanding voter accessAssociated Press

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham yesterday signed a Democratic-sponsored voting rights bill aimed at expanding access to the ballot and two other related measures.

New Mexico was one of several Democratic-controlled states where lawmakers advocated for sweeping voter protections this year, drawing praise from advocates concerned about court rulings potentially undermining federal voting rights.

Under New Mexico's legislation, automatic voter registration will be provided for U.S. citizens during transactions at state motor vehicle offices and voting rights will be restored to felons immediately after incarceration. It also will streamline the distribution of absentee ballots that can be returned by mail and make absentee ballot voting easier for Native Americans living in remote stretches of tribal land.

Austin Weahkee, the Indigenous justice policy advocate with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said the legislation will create a more equitable voting system by addressing many of the barriers that have historically disenfranchised rural, Indigenous and formerly incarcerated voters.

"Our elected leaders recognized that voting is an absolute right and not a privilege," Weahkee said in a statement.

Voters in remote tribal areas sometimes don't have formal street addresses or receive mail at home. The bill will allow remote voters to designate a tribal government building as a home mailing address for election purposes — including community chapter houses on the Navajo Nation.

New Mexico is home to 23 federally recognized Native American communities, including a large portion of the Navajo Nation. Native Americans account for about 12% of the state's population.

Under the bill, Native American communities also would have greater flexibility in designating voting locations, including ballot drop boxes. Some tribal residents were cut off from polling locations by local emergency lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Statewide, county clerks will distribute absentee ballots automatically in every election to people who sign up for the service. Before now, voters had to request an absentee ballot with each election in a voting process that can involve three or four mail deliveries.

The law also will require that each of New Mexico's 33 counties maintain at least two monitored ballot drop boxes. County clerks can request an exemption.

The governor also signed a bill that makes permanent the secretary of state's election security program and increases compensation for election workers.

The other measure signed Thursday is aimed at addressing the safety of election workers and officials. Under the legislation, the crime of intimidation will now include acts against employees and agents of the secretary of state's office, county clerk offices, municipal clerks and election officials themselves.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, said she believes the three bills balance voter access protections with maintaining election security.

Northern NM watershed group receives multi-million dollar federal grant for wildfire prevention — Source NM

Trying to protect a northern New Mexico watershed from disasters, a small nonprofit in Colfax County recently got a nearly $10 million grant from the federal government for thinning projects that’ll help reduce the risk of wildfires.

Source New Mexico’s Megan Gleason reports the Inflation Reduction Act provided the dollars necessary to make the Community Wildfire Defense Grant Program possible. With a total of 100 projects, there are 22 states and seven Native American tribes that will cumulatively receive $197 million.

There were 25 applicants from New Mexico, five of which got funding. Communities in low-income areas, recently impacted by disasters or in locations at high risk for wildfires were prioritized, said U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Wade Muehlhof.

The Cimarron Watershed Alliance got most of the funding allocated to New Mexico, snagging grants totaling $9.8 million. The money will be used for forest restoration projects in private communities northeast of Taos.

Neighbors turned out to protest as an Albuquerque housing project for homeless veterans broke ground — The Albuquerque Journal

A non-profit organization dedicated to getting unhoused veterans off the street broke ground on a new transitional living center yesterday–but not everyone is happy about the project.

The Albuquerque Journal reports residents of the surrounding neighborhood came out to the groundbreaking ceremony to protest, concerned the complex will lead to more crime, and bring down property values.

The housing complex on Mulberry, near interstate-25 and Gibson SE, comes from the New Mexico Veterans Integration centers, which says the project should be complete and housing vets by May 2024.

The 20,000 square foot housing complex is just the first phase of a much larger campus planned by the VIC, which will include affordable long-term housing, a food pantry, a gym and wellness center along with a thrift shop and other services.