New Mexico public employees stay well at health center

May 14, 2019

Carla Gordan wanted to come home. A Santa Fe native and nurse practitioner, she was working at a family health clinic in Las Cruces when she got an offer to return to her hometown and work with a more specific patient base: public employees.

That was two years ago. Gordan, 58, now is part of a five-member staff that operates the 4-year-old Stay Well Health Center from the ground floor of the New Mexico government’s Joseph Montoya Building off St. Francis Drive, offering free health services to state employees and other public workers.

“I actually was a state employee, so I can identify with the population,” Gordan said.

From Gordan’s vantage point, it’s a privileged population — at least in terms of health care access.

While the majority of residents in 32 out of 33 New Mexico counties face a shortage of primary care doctors and nurses, according to the New Mexico Department of Health, the Stay Well Health Center offers a broad range of general health services that can fill that gap — including in-house medication and blood testing at no cost to patients.

“There is this myth that everybody that has insurance has primary care providers, but that is so not true,” Gordan said.

“And we hear over and over again that they can’t get in to see their primary care provider; the wait is just too long,” she added. “And so we have been able to get people into medical care — regular medical care — that really need care and have gone without.”

Wellness suites at the Stay Well clinic combine a traditional exam room model with a small lounge for medical consultation and large flat-screen televisions.

Drawings of joyful runners flank the entrance to the exam rooms, and inside, the walls are decorated with colorful paintings of aspen trees.

Appointments at the Stay Well Health Center last longer than a standard doctor’s visit, starting at around 25 minutes, and the clinic boasts a 3-minute average wait time as well as same-day appointments.

A patient base overload has been a struggle for primary care providers in the state. To offer longer one-on-one appointments and on-time service, some private Northern New Mexico doctors have transitioned to a VIP or subscription-based practice that gives them more time with fewer patients — but it comes with an added monthly or annual fee that can be cost-prohibitive for some clients.

Patients at Stay Well have no such fees.

And while most doctors have to send patients to diagnostic centers for blood work, the state center is equipped with a small pharmacy and laboratory. It also has nurse practitioners to prescribe up to 30 days of a range of medication that’s free to patients, from ibuprofen to oral birth control, and they can take a full blood panel for a range of screenings, from diabetes to sexually transmitted infections.

Gordan said the center also is focused on holistic care, including mental health, although specialized services are referred to doctors outside the clinic.

And the clinic does not provide care for children under age 2.

Preventive care is “precisely what we are trying to accomplish,” said Clinton Nicley, director of risk management for the New Mexico General Services Department.

The hope, he said, is that the ease of getting medical care will not only cut down on health problems, but also lower workers’ time away from work for medical visits or other problems.

When former Gov. Susana Martinez opened the clinic in 2015, she said the center would save taxpayers $3.5 million annually.

The General Services Department could not provide a cost-savings analysis and said it doesn’t currently have any health improvement measures to show whether the overall health of state employees has been affected by access to the clinic.

The state pays roughly $2 million to operate the clinic through Cerner, a medical technology and services company based in Kansas City, Mo., with thousands of facilities nationally. New Mexico has paid Cerner $6.2 million to operate the clinic between 2015 and 2018.

And its services appear to be popular. An increasing number of state workers are using the clinic.

Tony Mora, who works in information technology for the Department of Health, said he only learned about the clinic last year but recently made it his primary care provider despite living in Los Lunas.

“I work right next door,” he said, “It’s very, very convenient.”

In the first year the clinic was open, it saw 5,344 patients, according to the General Services Department. As of September 2018, nearly 8,000 patients had visited the clinic — out of 11,600 state employees and 1,878 other public employees eligible for services within a 90-mile radius.

A fraction of state employees also come from rural areas and other parts of the state.

Josh Anderson, with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 18, said he hasn’t heard much about the clinic from union members — and that is usually a good indication.

“It sounds like a benefits folks have been taking advantage of in a positive way,” he said.

Cyndi Maestas, an employee benefits manager with the state, said she has had requests to expand the clinic to Albuquerque and Las Cruces. The center in Santa Fe is nearly at capacity, she added.

Gordan, too, said she hopes to see the clinic expand and provide more services to more patients.

“The potential is endless,” Gordan said. “We are providing a great service for a lot of people within the confines of what’s been negotiated and the space. We are doing a lot.”