FRI: Medicaid Enrollment Straining State's Finances, +More

Sep 4, 2020

Medicaid Enrollment Strains Public Finances In New Mexico - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Enrollment in Medicaid has increased by nearly 7% in New Mexico since the outset of the coronavirus pandemic as employers shed jobs and more families enter into poverty.

In a briefing Friday to state legislators, Human Services Secretary David Scrase praised federal legislation that increased the federal matching rate for Medicaid health care and allowed the state to quickly extend no-cost coronavirus testing to the poor and undocumented immigrants.

At the same time, he said the current 6.2% boost in federal matching funds is inadequate to keep up with rebounding demand for medical services under Medicaid and could end abruptly at the discretion of federal health regulators.

He warned that changes to a federal public health emergency declaration could thrust as much as $150 million in annual Medicaid obligations into the state general fund. He said it is too soon to know how the federal government will proceed in a presidential election year.

Medicaid Assistance Director Nicole Comeaux told legislators the federal government now provides $4.15 for every dollar in state general fund spending on Medicaid spending, up from $3.54 before the pandemic.

That federal support has enormous implications for public health, where more than half of children get health care through Medicaid. The program covers 72% of births statewide.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is asking most executive agencies to trim general fund spending by 5% for the coming fiscal year as the state confronts a nearly billion-dollar annual deficit.

Health Secretary Issues Order On Social Distancing At Polling Places Associated Press

New Mexico Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel on Friday issued a public health order that will limit the number of voters allowed at any one time at polling locations around the state as a way to limit spread of the coronavirus this fall.

Under the order, polling sites can accommodate four voters at once or 25% of maximum occupancy — whichever is greater. Only two voters at a time will be allowed at mobile polling stations.

Kunkel said the state's election code requires polling sites to remain accessible to the public so officials have to ensure that everyone casting a ballot can do so safely.

In-person early voting begins Oct. 17 and continue through Oct. 31. Election Day is Nov. 3, with in-person polling locations open in each county from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Officials on Friday reported 96 addition COVID-19 cases and the state has reported more than 25,800 cases since the pandemic began.

There were also three more deaths, bringing the total linked to the virus to 794.

New Mexico Art Collective Seeks Union, Management ResistsAssociated Press

Workers at a New Mexico art collective say they are seeking unionization.

Employees at the Santa Fe-based art collective Meow Wolf say Tuesday they will look to unionize under the Communications Workers of America umbrella.

The National Labor Relations Board says workers can form a union either by a petition and election or by their employer voluntarily recognizing the union. Meow Wolf's top executives Ali Rubinstein, Carl Christensen and Jim Ward say in a statement that they do not support unionization.

The union is currently collecting signatures for a petition, which more than half of collective's employees already have signed. 

Groups Raise Concerns About New Shaft At Us Nuclear Dump - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Crews at the U.S. government's underground nuclear waste repository in New Mexico are starting a new phase of a contentious project to dig a utility shaft.

Officials say it will increase ventilation at the site where workers entomb the radioactive remnants of decades of bomb-making.

Officials at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant say the $75 million project is a top priority.

Adequate ventilation at the repository has been an issue since 2014, when a radiation release forced a temporary closure and contamination limited air flow underground where workers dispose of nuclear waste.

Watchdog groups are concerned, saying a final permit for the work hasn't been issued.

New Mexico Eases Interstate Travel, Hotel Restrictions - Associated Press

New Mexico is easing its self-quarantine requirements for interstate travelers in advance of the Labor Day holiday.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced she will waive quarantine restrictions on travelers as they arrive from low-risk states by land or air starting Friday. Hotel occupancy limits are being raised from 50% to 75% when a certification for safe practices is completed.

The state's self-quarantine requirement will still apply to people returning or arriving from "high-risk" states based on coronavirus positivity rates and and per-capita infections, including nearby Texas, Arizona, Utah and Oklahoma. 

States are considered low risk if they have a 5% positivity rate or lower, or a new case rate below 80 per million residents — each calculated over a 7-day rolling average.

Regardless of which state they are traveling from, individuals who can show documentation of a valid negative COVID-19 test taken within the 72 hours before or after entry into the state are also exempt from the 14-day quarantine requirement.

A list of high-risk states will be posted on the state's coronavirus information website. 

As of Thursday, low-risk states included Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New Hampshire, New York Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Wyoming and Washington. 

State health officials continue to discourage all nonessential travel, describing it as "an extraordinary risk to yourself, your family, your community and your state."

New Mexico health officials announced 202 newly confirmed coronavirus cases statewide, with one new death.

The Navajo Nation reported 24 new cases of the virus Thursday and no new deaths. 

In-Person Learning For Some Younger Students In New Mexico - By Cedar Attanasio AP/Report For America

Some elementary schools in New Mexico will be allowed to have in-person learning next week, but it's unclear how many are signing up.

The majority of counties have low enough COVID-19 case rates to allow for students to attend two days per week.

But Public Education Department Secretary Ryan Stewart says the state will not mandate in-person learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

Many districts have decided to keep schools online-only through the end of the month. Albuquerque Public Schools, the state's largest district, has decided against nearly all in-person learning until January.

Stewart says the situation is fluid, and some school boards could announce in-person learning plans for younger students as soon as Friday.

If outbreaks remain low, the state's education department will allow in-person learning up to middle and high schools. For now, the vast majority of students will be working from home.

Access to the internet and compatible devices improved in this poor, rural state since March and April when one in five children couldn't connect to online learning. Yet few schools have been able to connect all students to remote classes, and in some areas half or more students cannot get online.

In several rural districts serving Indigenous students, up to 80 percent do not have access to the internet at home, and about half cannot access the internet at all.

New Mexico Governor Urges Voting By Mail Amid Pandemic - Associated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is urging voters to request absentee ballots online and cast them by mail in the interest of safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In an email message sponsored by her campaign, the first-term Democratic governor said Thursday that voting by mail is safe, easy and contributed to record turnout across New Mexico in the June primary. 

State election officials have expressed confidence in the ability of the U.S. Postal Service to handle an increased volume of absentee ballots. 

Some local Democratic officials recommend handing off absentee ballots directly at county clerk's offices or voting locations.

New Mexico is adding postal bar codes to absentee ballots to allow remote tracking of delivery, while voters for the first time must sign the outer envelope of absentee ballots and write down the last four digits of their social security number to help with authentication.


Suspect In Santa Fe High Athlete Killing To Remain Jailed - Associated Press

Estevan Montoya will remain in jail while he awaits trial on charges he shot and killed former Santa Fe High School basketball player "J.B." White. 

State District Judge T. Glenn Ellington ruled Thursday that Montoya could pose a threat to the public and also could be in danger himself if he were released. 

Ellington said there were no conditions of release "that would ensure the safety of the community." 

Montoya's attorney entered a plea of not guilty to charges including first-degree murder. 

The judge ruled last week that 17-year-old Montoya will be tried as an adult.


Daimler Trucks Tests Self-Driving Vehicles In US Southwest - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Daimler Trucks and allied vehicle software company Torc Robotics are expanding their testing of self-driving trucks to public roads in New Mexico along major long-haul freight routes.

The companies have established a new testing center in Albuquerque, as they begin automated runs for 18-wheel vehicles with autonomous diving technology on Southwest highways — supported by a human driver and a safety conductor.

Daimler's Autonomous Technology Group has taken aim at commercializing self-driving trucks within a decade, and the new testing location complements ongoing research on roadways in Virginia with milder weather and fewer steep hills.

Arizona already serves as a major testing ground for autonomous vehicles, including a public-private partnership involving major public universities that was announced in 2018.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey suspended Uber's self-driving vehicle testing privileges in March 2018 in the wake of a pedestrian fatality in a Phoenix suburb.

Daimler's testing routes in New Mexico are not publicly disclosed, though the trucks are prominently labeled as Daimler autonomous-driving vehicles.

EPA Creates New Colorado Office For Hardrock Mine Cleanup Associated Press

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it is dedicating a new office in Colorado to coordinate all federal hardrock mine cleanup efforts west of the Mississippi River.

It's called the Office of Mountains, Deserts and Plains, and it will steer projects to remediate acidic drainage and other surface and groundwater contamination at mining sites. The Gazette reports that Doug Benevento, the EPA's associate deputy administrator, spoke about the new office at a news conference in Colorado Springs.

It will work with states and tribes impacted by contaminated mining sites as well as other federal agencies. And it will be based at the Denver Federal Center in Lakewood, alongside other EPA satellite offices. 

Jeremy Nichols, a program director with WildEarth Guardians, an environmental advocacy group, said creating such a small office to deal with hardrock mine cleanup throughout the West is problematic.