Court must ensure NM kids’ right to sufficient education

By Gail Evans, Lead Attorney for plantiffs, Yazzie v. State of New Mexico
(This article appeared in the Albuquerque Journal.)

Our courts have the critical role of upholding the constitutional rights of our children. New Mexico’s Constitution guarantees children a sufficient education, one that prepares them for the rigors of college and the workforce. But for decades, our state has failed our students.

Our public education system is woefully insufficient, leading a district court to rule last July that the state is violating the constitutional rights of our students. After volumes of evidence and testimony from dozens of experts, the court found the state has not adequately invested in public education nor adopted the educational instruction and programs constitutionally required to close achievement gaps for N.M. students, especially low-income, Native American, English-language learners and students with disabilities.

The legislative process is a political one fraught with competing interests. For years, our children have been shortchanged by legislative budgets that have consistently underfunded public schools. Unfortunately, even after the court’s ruling, the Legislature this year only went part of the way in addressing the changes necessary.

While the funding allocated for public schools is higher than in recent years, it won’t even get us back to 2008 levels when adjusted for inflation. Like today, in 2008, our funding was insufficient and our state’s education outcomes ranked at or near the bottom nationally. Filling a hole that gets us back to 2008 levels of funding is not the investment in education our Constitution requires.

The increased funding will not be sufficient to ensure social services, counseling, health care and literacy specialists are available to all students who need them. It is not enough to cover basic instructional materials for the classroom, or to invest in our educators to attract and retain new teachers and expand their qualifications. It is not enough to ensure teaching is tailored to the unique cultural and linguistic needs of our students, including English-language learners and indigenous communities. And the transportation budget remains insufficient to ensure all students have the opportunity to participate in after-school and summer programs.

While the governor’s call for a “moonshot for education” is certainly the kind of vision we need, a moonshot requires sufficient investment of programs, services, time and money that we have yet to commit.

While it is encouraging our new governor will not appeal the Yazzie/Martinez ruling, she has now called for the court to vacate sections of the ruling. This will only further endanger our students’ life chances. The state should instead work to comply with the ruling and the Constitution; the future success of our children and New Mexico depends on it. Children should not be pawns in the political process. It is the role of the judicial branch to interpret and enforce the law. The court ruling requires us to act, mandating that we do better by our students. Our children are smart and capable, and rich in culture and diversity. We can provide an education system that serves all New Mexicans, regardless of their economic circumstances or cultural background.

I dream of a moonshot for education, too

By Wilhelmina Yazzie, lead plaintiff in the Yazzie/Martinez v. New Mexico lawsuit.
(This op-ed appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican)

When it comes to providing a quality education for every child in New Mexico, the stakes are too high for the “wait and see” approach the Santa Fe New Mexican takes in its recent editorial (“Educators must take the lead in reforms,” Our View, March 24).

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has said she wants a “moonshot for education.” As the lead plaintiff in the Yazzie/Martinez v. state of New Mexico lawsuit, I, too, dream of a moonshot for my children and for all of New Mexico’s children. I am of the Diné (Navajo) tribe and we view our children as “sacred.” They are the heart of our existence, and it is our responsibility to prepare them for iiná, what we call “life” in my language.

Our state constitution mandates that the state of New Mexico is responsible for providing a sufficient education for all students. The state has not followed through on its obligation, and in her court ruling on our lawsuit, Judge Sarah Singleton agreed.

The Legislature had a chance this session to change course, but it did not go nearly far enough. The funding increases for public education passed in this legislative session only serve to backfill budgets and do not even return basic school programming to 2008 levels. They will not adequately cover the critical programs needed to improve outcomes for all students — especially for our Native American children, our Latino/Hispanic children, our English language learners, our low-income children and our children with special needs.

My children’s schools do not have enough textbooks. Our teachers do not have basic classroom supplies. When it comes to testing, my children do not score at grade level, despite getting good grades and being on honor roll. My children do not receive enough academic support and resources to get them ready for these tests, and they have to pass these tests to graduate. Our schools have limited after-school programs and tutoring.

Our schools also lack one of the most important teachings for our youth — cultural and language education. It is imperative that we bring culturally relevant programs and resources into our schools, especially at a time like this. Our children are yearning for their identity and values, and others are searching for acceptance.

Being culturally connected to our language and culture help us find purpose and guidance; it gives us confidence and motivation to excel in all that we do. It also teaches our children our way of life and the meaning of our existence, gives us pride in who we are and where we come from. It also teaches non-Native children and educators our history and with that knowledge brings respect for one another and creates hózhó (peace) between all people that we interact with. That is the path to balance and harmony.

I am asking our state and our lawmakers to address all these issues; to act upon the court’s ruling and honor the constitutional rights of our students. We need pre-K for every student. We need more multilingual teachers, and they deserve better pay. All classrooms should have access to textbooks, technology and other basic resources. Our children should be our first priority. They are the next generation, and all I want is for my children, your children, our children to receive the quality education that they deserve.

To transform our public education system, it will take the dedication and cooperation of every member of our community— from tribal leaders to educators and experts to parents. We need everyone at the table if we are to succeed at what is most important to us: helping our children realize their dreams.

Op-Ed: Underfunding Medicaid is a Foolish Decision

shutterstock baby with doctor for website -2015-12-17by Abuko Estrada & Sireesha Manne

Originally published in the Albuquerque Journal, September 26, 2016. https://www.abqjournal.com/852766/underfunding-medicaid-is-a-foolish-decision.html

As taxpayers, we expect that when government spends our money it will be leveraged toward the best investments that provide the most benefits to our state.

Currently, New Mexico receives four dollars in federal funds for every state dollar invested in Medicaid. This money goes directly into patient care and supports over 50,000 mostly private-sector jobs in the state.

Rather than maximizing this $4 to $1 return on investment, New Mexico underfunded the Medicaid budget in the 2016 legislative session.

For fiscal year 2017, New Mexico is losing over $265 million in federal matching funds for Medicaid by failing to come up with $67 million to meet Medicaid’s minimum budget needs. Our health care system is taking a massive financial loss of over $330 million this year — or nearly $1 million a day!

This is a budgeting disaster for New Mexico that is expected to result in thousands of jobs being lost and, worse yet, a reduction in care to patients. Health care had been one of the only growing job sectors in the state because of the expansion of Medicaid that has added over 4,800 jobs in 2014 alone. However, due to budget shortfalls, the state has decided to reduce Medicaid payment levels for hospitals, doctors and other medical practitioners.

In response, health care providers have issued serious warnings that the low Medicaid rates will force them to downsize staff and potentially even close entire facilities.

The decision to cut Medicaid is self-defeating because New Mexico desperately needs jobs and a stronger health care system.

Nearly every county in the state – 32 out of 33 counties – has shortages for primary care, dental care and mental health care. The problems are most severe for patients in rural areas, where over 30 percent of residents live.

A prime example of health care workforce shortages is the closing of the obstetrics department at Alta Vista Regional Hospital in Las Vegas, N.M. Since 2010, three other hospitals have ceased their obstetric services, forcing expectant mothers to travel unreasonable distances for prenatal care.

Medicaid patients face the most serious consequences of these shortages. The Legislative Finance Committee recently found that up to half of providers in some areas in New Mexico are refusing to take new Medicaid patients.

Another report has found that a quarter of Dona Aña County residents needing hospitalization are going to Texas to get services. However, as illustrated in a recent news article, many doctors in Texas now refuse to see these patients because our state’s Medicaid reimbursement rates are too low.

This is just the beginning.

Medicaid provides health care coverage to two out of three children in New Mexico, as well as seniors, people with disabilities and low-income families. However, due to Medicaid budget shortfalls, the state next plans to cut health care benefits and charge higher patient fees.

Studies have shown that these changes are likely to result in massive losses of coverage for low-income families and will prevent patients from accessing needed services, only deepening New Mexico’s health care crisis.

New Mexico needs to responsibly maximize Medicaid matching funds. The first step is to fix the state’s revenue system. New Mexico is losing needed dollars to tax cuts and loopholes created in the last 15 years for large corporations and the highest-income earners, which have not proven to produce jobs or benefit the state.

There are several ways to raise revenues without hurting working families, such as freezing corporate tax rates at their current levels, which are now on par with other states and further reductions are not needed, taxing capital gains and investment income at the same rate as earned income and targeting products that are undertaxed and that are not necessities, such as new vehicles, alcohol and tobacco.

By not acting, New Mexico is losing precious resources that our state needs to spur job growth and support our health care infrastructure. Let’s put our money into our wisest investments – Medicaid is certainly one of the best.

Op-Ed: State’s decision to cut Medicaid is self-defeating

by Abuko Estrada and Sireesha Manne

Originally published September 19, 2016, NMPolitics.net http://nmpolitics.net/index/2016/09/states-decision-to-cut-medicaid-is-self-defeating/

COMMENTARY: As taxpayers, we expect that when government spends our money it will be leveraged toward the best investments that provide the most benefits to our state. Currently, New Mexico receives four dollars in federal funds for every state dollar invested in Medicaid. This money goes directly into patient care and supports over 50,000 jobs in the state, mostly in the private sector.

Rather than maximizing this $4-to-$1 return on investment, New Mexico underfunded the Medicaid budget in the 2016 legislative session.

For fiscal year 2017, New Mexico is losing over $265 million in federal matching funds for Medicaid by failing to come up with $67 million to meet Medicaid’s minimum budget needs. Our health-care system is taking a massive financial loss of over $330 million this year – or nearly $1 million a day!

This is a budgeting disaster for New Mexico that is expected to result in thousands of jobs being lost and, worse yet, a reduction in care to patients. Health care had been one of the only growing job sectors in the state because of the expansion of Medicaid, which added over 4,800 jobs in 2014 alone.

However, due to budget shortfalls, the state has decided to reduce Medicaid payment levels for hospitals, doctors and other medical practitioners. In response, health-care providers have issued serious warnings that the low Medicaid rates will force them to downsize staff and potentially even close entire facilities.

The decision to cut Medicaid is self-defeating because New Mexico desperately needs jobs and a stronger health-care system. Nearly every county in the state – 32 out of 33 counties – have shortages for primary care, dental care, and mental health care. The problems are most severe for patients in rural areas, where over 30 percent of residents live.

A prime example of health-care workforce shortages is the closing of the obstetrics department at Alta Vista Regional Hospital in Las Vegas. Since 2010, three other hospitals have ceased their obstetric services, forcing expectant mothers to travel unreasonable distances for prenatal care.

Medicaid patients face the most serious consequences of these shortages. The Legislative Finance Committee recently found that up to half of providers in some areas in New Mexico are refusing to take new Medicaid patients.

Another report has found that a quarter of Dona Aña County residents needing hospitalization are going to Texas to get services. However, as illustrated in a recent news article, many doctors in Texas are now refusing to see these patients because our state’s Medicaid reimbursement rates are too low.

This is just the beginning. Medicaid provides health-care coverage to two out of three children in New Mexico, as well as seniors, people with disabilities and low-income families. However, due to Medicaid budget shortfalls, the state next plans to cut health-care benefits and charge higher patient fees.

Studies have shown that these changes are likely to result in massive losses of coverage for low-income families and will prevent patients from accessing needed services, only deepening New Mexico’s health-care crisis.

New Mexico needs to responsibly maximize Medicaid matching funds. The first step is to fix the state’s revenue system. New Mexico is losing needed dollars to tax cuts and loopholes created in the last 15 years for large corporations and the highest income earners, which have not proven to produce jobs or benefit the state.

There are several ways to raise revenues without hurting working families, such as freezing corporate tax rates at their current levels, which are now on par with other states and further reductions are not needed; taxing capital gains and investment income at the same rate as earned income; and targeting products that are being under-taxed and that are not necessities, such as new vehicles, alcohol and tobacco.

By not acting, New Mexico is losing precious resources that our state needs to spur job growth and support our health-care infrastructure. Let’s put our money into our wisest investments – Medicaid is certainly one of the best.

Abuko Estrada and Sireesha Manne are attorneys with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

Medicaid a Bright Spot in a Dismal Economy

Republished with permission by the New Mexico Political Report. To see the original article, follow: http://nmpoliticalreport.com/20757/medicaid-a-bright-spot-in-a-dismal-economy/

Abuko-2015-09-23By Abuko Estrada, Healthcare Staff Attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

Since 2008, it has been gloomy in New Mexico. Our state is still recovering from the Great Recession. Our job growth has been among the worst in the nation, leaving us well short of pre-recession job levels. We are the only state in the nation where more people are moving out than moving in.

Our economic forecast still looks dismal.

There has, however, been one ray of sunshine–our healthcare sector is growing and over two hundred thousand New Mexicans have financial relief due to Medicaid expansion.

Now that we finally see a bright spot, let’s not ruin a good thing.

When New Mexico expanded Medicaid in 2014, our state had many reasons to celebrate. Polls showed overwhelming public support for Medicaid, with most voters in favor of Medicaid expansion and opposed to making cuts to the program.

The skyrocketing uninsured rate was taking its toll, leaving people without treatment or forcing families into medical debt and even bankruptcy. Medicaid expansion has meant that over 220,000 more New Mexican adults have health care coverage. This expansion of adult coverage also helped capture more uninsured children, reducing that rate by almost 16 percent during the first year alone.

New Mexicans knew that Medicaid expansion would boost job growth. In fact, the health care industry is driving job growth for our state. According to the Legislative Council Service, health care jobs have accounted for 56 percent of the new jobs over the last year.

We knew that Medicaid expansion would reduce costs for hospitals and healthcare providers, allowing them to invest in new facilities and their workforce. New Mexico’s 28 hospitals have already seen a 30 percent drop in the uncompensated care of uninsured patients from 2014. Our federally-qualified health centers, which have generally operated under budget deficits due to uncompensated care, had net income of $1.8 million dollars in fiscal year 2014. According to the New Mexico Primary Care Association, the better financial picture will allow the health centers to raise provider pay and increase capacity around the state.

We knew that Medicaid expansion would lead to economic relief for our families. In the past, people were routinely sent to collections for medical bills they could not pay. Healthcare coverage through Medicaid gives families more disposable income and the ability to build assets rather than struggle with debt. Every taxpayer also paid for state and county funds for hospitals to treat uninsured patients.

Finally, we knew that Medicaid expansion would be good for state revenue by injecting over $1 billion non-state dollars into the economy each year, primarily into the private sector, and increasing insurance taxes. In fiscal year 2014, The Department of Finance and Administration says New Mexico collected $115 million in insurance taxes. Economists with the Legislative Finance Committee estimate that number will grow to $247 million dollars by 2020.

For the first three years of expansion, we got all of these benefits at no cost to the state. In 2017, we will only pay 5 cents on the dollar, while the federal government takes on 95 percent of costs. After 2020, we will pay no more than one dime for every dollar to maintain these benefits. The insurance tax on Medicaid managed care companies retrieves 4 of these cents – canceling out nearly all of the State’s costs in upcoming years.

Still, some policymakers question the value of expansion and would like to cut support for the program.

It would be wrong to reverse course now and dump one of New Mexico’s best investments. Our state could lose hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in economic activity.

Every dollar lost would damage our health care industry and workforce, stunting the driving sector for our job growth. Halting this growth could prove disastrous for our rural areas, which already face provider shortages. It would become more difficult to attract providers and build capacity.

New Mexico can only move forward if we capitalize on what we have. When the weather is finally breaking, let’s not take it for granted. By making the right choice to fully fund and support Medicaid, we can invest in a brighter future.