Retired New Mexico brigadier general to lead veterans agency

December 27, 2018
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Retired Brig. Gen. Judy Griego is announced as Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham's pick to lead the state veterans services agency during a news conference in Albuquerque, N.M., on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018. Griego, a native New Mexican with a decorated military career, was the first woman to ever be promoted to the rank of brigadier general in the New Mexico National Guard. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham on Thursday named the first woman to ever be promoted to the rank of brigadier general in the New Mexico National Guard to serve as the next secretary of the state Department of Veteran Services.

The incoming governor announced the appointment of Judy Griego during a news conference in Albuquerque. She also appointed William Scott Carreathers to lead the Office of African American Affairs and Jen Schroer as the state tourism secretary.

Lujan Grisham will take the helm Jan. 1. Still pending are decisions on key agencies that oversee public safety, public education, health and the environment. Those are expected to be announced in the coming days.

Lujan Grisham and Griego said they want to create an agency that can serve as a model in bridging the gap between the state and the services provided by the federal government, including health care and behavioral health services.

The idea would be based on more direct services and stronger advocacy on the state’s part. They indicated they would pursue legislation that would allow the veterans services secretary to work with the state Health Department to have more oversight related to the medical centers in New Mexico that are run by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

The federal agency first came under fire during former President Barack Obama’s tenure, when a 2014 wait-time scandal was discovered at the Phoenix VA hospital and elsewhere throughout the country. Veterans waited weeks or months for appointments while phony records covered up the lengthy waits.

In August, President Donald Trump signed a bill giving veterans more freedom to see doctors outside the troubled VA system. But some lawmakers have warned escalating costs could put the agency at risk of budget shortfalls.

More recently, independent federal investigators released a report in December that found VA outreach activities aimed at preventing veteran suicide dropped off in 2017 and 2018 and that the office responsible for these activities lacked consistent leadership.

Lujan Grisham, who is wrapping up her tenure as a congresswoman, said her concern about veterans care will continue as governor. She pointed to a leadership change at the VA hospital in Albuquerque, saying federal law doesn’t require the interim director to meet the qualifications and licensing requirements that other hospital administrators in the state have to meet.

“We’ll work to pass legislation that will allow us make that requirement of the VA hospitals,” the incoming governor said, “because if you want improvements in health care, you’ve got to have someone in the hospital who has the experience, the capacity to do that work.”

Carreathers is currently the director of African American Student Services at the University of New Mexico, a role he has held since 2002. He also served as associate dean for diversity initiatives.

Carreathers said his focus will include addressing health and educational disparities, and that part of that work could involve opening up a satellite office in southeastern New Mexico.

As for tourism, Schroer said she’s committed to the New Mexico True campaign and plans to continue leveraging the state’s “rich authenticity” to draw more visitors.

Schroer is currently the executive director of the chamber of commerce in Davis, California. Previously, she was the president and chief executive of the New Mexico Hospitality Association and had worked in the state Tourism Department.

Gov. Susana Martinez has credited the New Mexico True campaign for record-breaking tourism numbers in recent years. Earlier this year, state officials announced that the industry in 2017 injected $6.6 billion into New Mexico’s economy. That was a 3.2 percent increase over 2016, or $200 million more, and the largest in state history.

Created in 2012, the initial $2 million tourism campaign featured colorful images of families kayaking, mountain climbing and making pottery. The state has spent $60 million since 2012 promoting New Mexico’s popular tourist attractions on billboards and in commercials in Texas, Arizona, New York and Illinois.

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