The majority of Bernalillo County residents are not in favor of the proposed $146 million expansion of UNM Hospital, according to a new survey.

The survey, done by the Albuquerque-based Rio Grande Foundation using Utah-based polling company NSON Opinion Strategy, stated Bernalillo County taxpayers already pay a total of $90 million annually to support UNMH. Survey results showed that when participants were informed of this, only 15.3 percent “urged” the expansion. The expansion, if approved, would not extract any additional funds from taxpayers.

The hospital first proposed expansion of UNMH about 12 years ago.

In 2001, the Board of Regents voted to allot $5 million to the project. The master plan of the expansion — an adult-care unit that will include 96 additional emergency room beds — was drafted in 2011. Last September, UNM asked the State Board of Finance to postpone its vote on the final approval of the project, saying it wanted to address concerns that it had not gotten enough feedback from the community. The board itself then delayed the approval in October until some time after the Nov. 6 election, expressing concern that the repeal of the Affordable Care Act — a possibility had Mitt Romney won the election — would change whether the expansion was necessary.

The expansion has yet to gain approval from the State Board of Finance or from UNM’s Board of Regents.

As an alternative to expanding UNMH, 46.1 percent of respondents in the survey favored the creation of outpatient clinics throughout the county, and 16.6 percent said funds should go to the creation of a new psychiatric hospital and behavioral programs.

Survey results also show that 29.7 percent of respondents supported the hospital’s expansion, and 54.2 percent said money “should be reserved for the poor/uninsured.”

Rio Grande Foundation President Paul Gessing said results suggest Bernalillo County residents do not believe the hospital expansion will help local health care. He said the hospital expansion is not an efficient use of funds.

“It’s not that they’re not willing to pay for health care,” he said, referring to members of the community. “They’re just more concerned about if the hospital itself is the best way to improve health care.”

But UNMH questions accuracy of the survey.

UNMH communications director Billy Sparks said several technical aspects of the survey were flawed. He said the Hispanic population of the county was overrepresented by about 10 percentage points, and Native Americans were underrepresented by about half their actual population.

“The survey sample is not reflective of Bernalillo County,” he said. “This was a robo-call, automated, nonhuman phone call poll which asked either/or questions, pitting one idea against another. This is a poorly designed automated poll done by an out-of-state Utah firm.”

But according to Gessing, the poll was conducted by a live person over the phone and had six questions, including whether respondents favored the expansion, whether they wanted the County Commission to oversee the project directly, and whether their tax dollars are being spent efficiently for local health care. The release also stated the margin of error of the survey is /- 4.9 percent.

Gessing said the foundation hired Utah-based polling firm NSON to conduct the survey. He said 400 registered voters in Bernalillo County participated.

Gessing said half of the cost of UNMH’s expansion would be funded by Bernalillo County residents’ tax dollars. He said the foundation did the survey so residents could express their concerns about the project more easily.

“The spending is not the best use of (taxpayer) money,” he said. “This is a massive new project. But there’s a very limited ability for officials and representatives of people to say ‘no.’”
Sparks said the expansion will help Bernalillo County immensely.

“UNM Hospital is the state’s only level-one trauma center,” he said. “In addition, more than 100,000 people may soon receive insurance in the Medicaid expansion. I am sure they will require care. We are crowded now and the situation will only get worse.”

Gessing said the foundation proposes the construction of community clinics in the county, which he said will be more efficient. He said the proposed expansion has already raised concerns from groups in the city.

William Browne, administrative director of District 1199 New Mexico, a labor union of hospital employees in Bernalillo County, said that although his organization does not take issue with the expansion, he believes UNMH can use its funds more efficiently.

“We believe they should not only invest in bricks and mortar, but also in the flesh and blood of the employees by giving them raises,” he said. “The building by itself doesn’t get the stuff done.”

Browne said that because UNMH employees are not compensated enough, the hospital should instead allocate part of the expansion’s budget to providing them the pay that they deserve.

Sparks said UNMH’s expansion has already gained support from the hospital’s Board of Trustees, the New Mexico Higher Education Department and from Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry. He said that once the regents issue their final approval, the date of which is uncertain, the expansion will be finished in 18 to 24 months.