SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Oregon’s top health official will be taking the reins of New Mexico’s Health Department as the state builds a new veterans home and grapples with the enduring hardships of COVID-19 and the toll of alcoholism, drug-overdose deaths and gun violence.
The appointment of Patrick M. Allen was announced Friday in a news release from Gov. Michelle Lujan’s office.
“Patrick is a regulator and public health professional with a proven record in improving health care systems, and I have full confidence he will do the same here in New Mexico,” Lujan Grisham said. “He shares my vision of a New Mexico that fosters better health outcomes for every resident of our beautiful state.”
Allen will oversee an agency of more than 2,000 employees at the forefront of efforts to blunt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic while attending to longstanding public health issues aggravated by poverty and limited access to medical care in remote areas.
At the same time, lawmakers are funding or considering initiatives that expand the agency’s mission to address gun violence and possibly climate change as a matter of public health.
The governor’s office said Allen has spent more than 30 years in public service, most recently serving as the director of the Oregon Health Authority under outgoing Gov. Kate Brown. He also worked with Oregon’s Department of Consumer and Business Services.
Lujan Grisham is starting a second, four-year term on Jan. 1 amid a series of departures and new appointments of leaders at crucial state agencies.
The governor has relied on Human Services Secretary David Scrase to oversee the Health Department for the past 18 months since the departure of Tracie Collins, a dean at the University of New Mexico College of Population Health who led the agency on a temporary basis in the early months of the pandemic until July 2021.
Scrase will continue in his role as head of the Human Services Department.
Recent performance evaluations by the Legislature’s budget and accountability office give the Health Department mixed marks for programs aimed at combating drug overdose deaths in the midst of a nationwide fentanyl crisis. Statewide drug overdoses and alcohol-related deaths reached an all-time high in 2020, amid increased spending on treatment and prevention programs.
The agency’s scientific laboratory has been praised for its efficiency in monitoring drinking water for contaminants including lead and so-called forever chemicals — and short processing times for blood alcohol samples for law enforcement as they combat drunken driving.
The Health Department operates on a budget of nearly $350 million annually in state general funds, which acts as a conduit for federal public health spending.
The agency operates seven residential treatment centers that have been flagged in recent evaluations by state and federal authorities for inadequate oversight, inefficiencies, staffing shortages, poor facility conditions and serious deficiencies in care for patients.
A recent evaluation of state-operated hospitals for veterans, the mentally ill and older adults in September described inadequate oversight that threatens the ability to provide quality care, including harmful conditions at the State Veterans’ Home.
In July, the state began construction of new residences at the State Veterans’ Home — a healthcare facility for military veterans in the town of Truth or Consequences that had been criticized for substandard conditions by state and federal evaluators.