FRI: Acoma Pueblo Sues US Over Hospital Closure, Roundhouse Sees Spate Of Virus Cases, + More

Jan 29, 2021


New Mexico Tribe Sues US Over Hospital Closure Amid Pandemic - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

A New Mexico Indigenous tribe is suing the U.S. government, claiming federal health officials have violated the law by ending emergency and in-patient medical care at a hospital on tribal lands.

Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo said during a briefing Friday that the tribe's pleas have fallen on deaf ears and that the lack of emergency health care services could not have come at a worse time as COVID-19 continues to take a toll on his community.

Vallo said tribal officials have talked numerous times with the Indian Health Service about the closure of the Acoma-Canoncito-Laguna Service Unit hospital and have pointed to a requirement that the agency provide a year's notice of any planned hospital closures. The lawsuit is asking that current levels of service be maintained until a year after notice is given to Congress.

Criticism of the Indian Health Service and chronic funding inadequacies have spanned decades and numerous presidential administrations. Lawyers for Acoma said the closure of the hospital marks the latest example as the agency moves to downsize smaller hospitals in favor of having centralized health care facilities.

Tribal officials also highlighted the availability of federal coronavirus relief funding, but Vallo said the agency has refused to tap that money to help address what he called "a life-and-death situation" at Acoma.

He said at least one tribal member who had a heart attack died because emergency services were no longer available at the hospital.

Vallo said court action was the tribe's only option.

The Indian Health Service said in a statement that there are not enough health care workers to provide inpatient and emergency department services at the hospital, which serves Acoma and other neighboring tribal communities.

The agency also disputed claims that it was required to give advance notice of the hospital's closure since it was considered a temporary move that resulted from safety concerns due to the lack of staff.

Indian Health Service spokesman Joshua Barnett said the agency remains committed to providing comprehensive care to Acoma patients but acknowledged that permanent changes would be coming.

In an initial ruling Friday, a judge dismissed the agency’s claims that shutting down the hospital was within the government’s discretion and granted the pueblo's request for a temporary restraining order calling for services be maintained for at least two weeks until a hearing on a preliminary injunction.

Legislator Tests Positive For Coronavirus Within Capitol - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

The Democratic speaker of the state House is restricting access by lawmakers to the House floor and closing off conference rooms after the disclosure that a Republican legislator tested positive for COVID-19, along with several earlier positive tests among legislative staff.

Speaker Brian Egolf of Santa Fe said Friday that he will begin restricting in-person access to House floor sessions to himself and one additional person from each political party.

That would establish almost entirely online participation in House committee hearings and floor debates. The Capitol is closed to the public.

Republican House Minority Leader Jim Townsend said the COVID-positive male lawmaker is asymptomatic and doing fine. The legislator's name has not been made public.

The Senate devises its own participation rules and pandemic precautions. It is holding committee meetings by video conference while convening occasional floor sessions with in-person attendance or the option of participating online from an office within the state Capitol complex.

Egolf said three people tested positive for the coronavirus at a pop-up testing site in the Capitol building since Jan. 21, the third day of a 60-day legislative session.

Another legislative employee tested positive at an off-site clinic Jan. 18, and two Capitol security personnel on patrol outside the building tested positive several days before the session.

State health officials say nearly 1,200 virus tests have been conducted at the Capitol with three positive cases.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Friday extended a public health emergency order without changes to the state's color-coded, county-by-county reopening criteria.

A statewide mask mandate remains in place with tight restrictions on restaurant dining and nonessential business across most of the state.

State health officials reported 1,085 new positive daily tests for the coronavirus on Friday, with 22 related deaths. That raises the statewide pandemic death tally to 3,248.

New Mexico Advances Aid In Dying Bill By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press/Report For America

New Mexico could become the next state to legalize medical aid in dying for terminally ill patients.

A right-to-die bill has passed along party lines in the House's Health and Human Services Committee and received support from Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Known as the Elizabeth Whitfield End-Of-Life Act, it is named for a former state district judge who testified in support of physician-aid in dying in 2017 and died of cancer in 2018. The bill would allow terminally ill patients to request life-ending medication.

They would have to mentally competent, review treatment alternatives, and wait 48 hours. Eight other states have similar laws.

The bill will head to the House Judiciary Committee for an additional vote, and a parallel bill is running through the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is likely to support the bill if approved by the Legislature, spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said.

A version of the bill was introduced in the 2019 legislative session but failed to get a vote in the House.

Groups Challenge Utility Plan To Dump New Mexico Power PlantAssociated Press

Environmentalists are challenging an effort by New Mexico's largest electric provider to abandon its interest in a coal-fired power plant that provides power to customers in New Mexico and Arizona. They argue that the plan would violate New Mexico's landmark energy law.

In a filing Thursday with state regulators, New Energy Economy and Citizens for Fair Rates and the Environment argue that the statute prohibits fossil fuel-fired plants from being reassigned or sold as a means of complying with renewable energy standards.

They also say Public Service Co. of New Mexico's application for abandonment of the Four Corners Power Plant is incomplete because it doesn't give notice or provide testimony about whether a proposed sale of PNM's share to the Navajo Transitional Energy Co. would result in a net public benefit.

The two groups along with other environmentalists contend that the early exit plan has no real environmental benefits since the tribal company and other co-owners — including Arizona Public Service — would continue operating Four Corners through 2031.

Public Service Co. of New Mexico's abandonment request also seeks to recover $300 million it has invested in Four Corners using low-cost bonds that would be paid off by utility customers.

The utility has argued that using low-cost bonds to recover its investments and replacing the coal with cheaper renewable generation could save customers anywhere from $30 million to $300 million over time compared to remaining in Four Corners until 2031.

The amount saved would depend on the costs of whatever replacement power is ultimately approved by state regulators.


New Mexico Prison Chief Says Private Jails Needed, For Now - Associated Press

New Mexico is sticking with its approach to contracting with privately operated prisons — and possibly phasing them out as time and money allow. 

State Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero on Thursday spoke out in opposition to a bill that would make it unlawful for the state and local governments to contract with private prisons across New Mexico. 

The bill from Democratic legislators including Rep. Angelica Rubio of Las Cruces would cut loose three private prison operators that oversee four New Mexico facilities — and nearly half of state inmates. 

The proposal responds to calls for more accountability in the criminal justice system. Tafoya Lucero says the proposal is impractical.

President Joe Biden this week ordered the Department of Justice to end its reliance on privately run prisons, directing the attorney general not to renew contracts. The move effectively reverts the Justice Department to the same posture it held at the end of the Obama administration.

In New Mexico, Tafoya Lucero said that ending private prison contracts abruptly would disrupt access to about 3,000 prison beds that cannot be immediately substituted.

Indian Education Funding At Stake In New Mexico Legislature - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

Indian education advocates in the New Mexico legislature are proposing $153 million in education funding as part of the so-called "tribal remedy framework." 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has suggested around $15 million. 

Despite the gap, Legislators serving large tribal constituents say the administration is starting to embrace tribal remedies and address problems in the education system highlighted in recent lawsuits. 

State courts have found current funding structures to be deficient and discriminatory, harming Native American, Hispanic, and low-income students. 

A federal court ruled that state education funding formulas unfairly disadvantaged school districts with large areas of tribal or federal land.

Following the court rulings, Lujan Grisham and her deputies switched positions on education funding issues held for decades by leaders from both political parties. They also filled a long-vacant tribal liaison position in the Public Education Department.

In January, Lujan Grisham's budget recommendation included $15 million in funding for Native American-focused funding that could be used for teacher training, recruitment, and curriculum development each year for the next two years.

Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said the department "continues collaborating with tribal communities and others to work out the mechanics of our proposal." 

But Stewart's proposed budget of $15 million is a far cry from the tribal remedy framework document created collaboratively by the state's 23 tribes. 

That plan recommends 20 new programs and over $100 million in specific spending, for example, internet infrastructure. It recommends things like recruiting Native American school administrators. It lays out policy changes on student discipline and communication with state agencies that wouldn't cost anything but would change governance and tribal-state relations on education.

Education funding accounts for about $3.3 billion of the general fund budget at stake in the current legislative session.

Navajo Nation Reports 11 COVID-19 Deaths, Reaches 1,000 Mark - Associated Press

Navajo Nation health officials on Thursday reported 11 more COVID-19 deaths to reach the 1,000 mark since the pandemic began. 

They also reported 59 new coronavirus cases to bring the total reported cases on the reservation to 27,987. 

On Monday, the tribe extended its stay-at-home order with a revised nightly curfew to limit the spread of COVID-19. 

The Navajo Department of Health has identified 53 communities with uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus, down from 75 communities in recent weeks. 

The Navajo Nation also is lifting weekend lockdowns to allow more vaccination events. The actions in the latest public health emergency order will run through at least Feb. 15.

Downward Trend Of COVID-19 Cases Continues In New Mexico Associated Press

New Mexico health officials on Thursday reported an additional 678 confirmed COVID-19 infections, bringing the statewide total since the pandemic began to nearly 172,000 cases.

The latest figures include 20 inmates at three of the state's prisons.

Overall, confirmed cases and related deaths have been trending downward along with hospitalizations.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a social media post Thursday that the state's public health measures are making a difference and that spread of the virus slows every time people stay home and avoid gatherings.

Meanwhile, vaccinations are underway for the oldest New Mexicans as well as younger residents who have pre-existing conditions that put them at higher risk. State officials have said the pace of vaccinations is limited by supplies.

More than 86% of the 276,850 doses that have been shipped to New Mexico have been administered.

State data shows more than 530,000 residents have registered online to receive the vaccine.

Lawmakers Eye Expanding School Year To Offset PandemicAlbuquerque Journal, Associated Press

New Mexico lawmakers are proposing a plan that would require schools to extend the next academic year as a way to make up for learning losses in the coronavirus pandemic

The Albuquerque Journal reports Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat, proposed the bill and said more instructional time has shown to boost academic achievement.

Remote learning has been the norm over the past 10 months, but Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced this week that schools would be allowed to transition back to partial in-person learning in February.

Remote learning deprived some students of an education because they lack access to technology, with those in rural areas suffering disproportionately and as many as half of Native American students unable to connect online.

Despite efforts by the state's Public Education Department and school districts, many students lacked internet into December. Those without electricity suffered the most.

Senate Bill 40 passed the Senate Education Committee and heads to the Senate Finance Committee. The requirements would be temporary, applying only to the 2021-22 school year.

The $139 million plan would offer two options that require schools to extend the next academic year by 10 or 25 days. Schools would have to provide either the K-5 Plus program, or join extended learning time programs.

Teachers would be paid for the additional work and that money would come from a school reform fund.

School districts and boards are divided over the bill, with Albuquerque, Rio Rancho and Las Cruces supporting it and others calling for more local control.

New Mexico Community Solar Proposal Clears First Hurdle - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A proposal that would allow community solar programs to be established in New Mexico has cleared its first legislative hurdle despite questions from some lawmakers and concerns among investor-owned utilities.

The bill cleared the Senate Conservation Committee on a party-line vote Thursday. Democrats said it would complement state mandates for generating electricity from renewable resources by expanding access to solar energy for businesses and residents who are unable to put up their own solar panels.

Republican lawmakers said there are still uncertainties about the costs for utility customers. Some lawmakers also said the bill should include a preference for New Mexico-based solar providers.

Community solar projects open the door for households and businesses that don't have access to solar because they rent, don't have the rooftop space or can't afford the upfront costs of a photovoltaic system.

Instead, developers build small, local solar facilities from which customers can subscribe and receive credit on their electricity bills for the power produced from their portion of the solar array.

Supporters say aside from adding more renewable energy to the grid, community solar projects can offset electricity costs for subscribers, including low-income residents.

However, both Democrat and Republican lawmakers had questions about whether costs could be passed along to other utility customers who aren't subscribers.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, 40 states have at least one community solar project online, with nearly 2,600 cumulative megawatts installed through 2020.

The association estimates that the next five years will see the community solar market add as much as 3.4 gigawatts nationwide, or enough to power roughly 650,000 homes.

Navajo Nation Reports Error In Hardship Assistance Checks – Associated Press

The Navajo Nation says about 120,000 checks have been issued to tribal members who applied for hardship assistance amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The tribal controller's office says the total includes 370 checks that were duplicated because of a printer server failure.

Controller Pearline Kirk says office personnel are planning to contact applicants affected by the error with more information. Staff also will void duplicate checks that haven't been processed.

The hardship assistance program is paid for by a portion of the $714 million the Navajo Nation received from a federal coronavirus relief bill.