UNM President Bob Frank announced Sunday that he will be awarding his 2014 Presidential Awards of Distinction to Neurosurgery Department chair Dr. Howard Yonas and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez
Frank will present the awards at UNM’s commencement ceremony in December, he said. This is the award’s second year, and Martinez and Yonas are the third and fourth recipients, respectively.
The recipients were selected based on “outstanding career achievement, scholarly excellence, leadership in a profession, noteworthy public service or humanitarian endeavor,” according to a UNM press release.
“This award is about people that do bold and important things,” Frank said. “We’re recognizing both of them for what they’ve done for New Mexico and healthcare in New Mexico. We’re really thrilled that they will both get recognized at graduation in December.”
Yonas received the award after establishing and drastically increasing the size of his department, which used to be a sub-department of surgery, providing better healthcare to New Mexicans, Frank said. He also established a telemedicine network that allows neurosurgeons at UNMH to provide critical consultations to patients statewide.
The telemedicine project received more than $15 million of grant money in order to provide the consulting services, which will cut down on costs and provide faster diagnoses, he said.
“Dr. Yonas is really the consummate academic leader,” Frank said. “He’s innovative. He’s cutting edge.”
Yonas said he is pleased to receive the award from Frank, but that his work has only just begun.
The telemedicine project will aid healthcare providers across the state, but another key aspect is a simultaneous study Yonas is conducting regarding how to reduce costs on healthcare services while also increasing their effectiveness, he said.
”It’s great to have won the award,” Yonas said. “Now we just have to do the job, and the job is enormous.”
Before Yonas came to UNM, New Mexico did not have an intensive neurosurgery solution, so most patients had to seek healthcare options elsewhere, he said.
“Lots of things were being flown out of state for emergencies, and that’s not the way to handle emergency care,” Yonas said. “We fill that void.”
Now, with a relatively small staff and the new telemedicine project, Yonas and his team are able to provide treatment to New Mexicans in most areas around the state, he said.
“It’s a major undertaking,” Yonas said. “We’re a very small group, and we provide a great deal of healthcare for the entire state.”
Frank said Martinez received the award for her work in expanding Medicaid in New Mexico at a time when most Republican governors were afraid to do so.
Martinez worked with the state Legislature to establish a health care exchange that provides basic healthcare to more than 200,000 New Mexicans, most of which reside in rural areas where health insurance shortages were the most pronounced, according to the press release.
“She could have easily done what a lot of other governors did and lay low and see where the winds went,” Frank said, “but she didn’t do that.”
Despite the fact that Martinez has received criticism regarding her stance on education in New Mexico, Frank said she deserved the award for her work in expanding healthcare because it was a move that took a decisive stance against party lines.
Martinez was only the second Republican governor to expand Medicaid, and her move to do so showed pragmatic thinking that put the needs of New Mexicans before those of her political party, Frank said.
“In this area she was bold and courageous and did something that really impacted New Mexicans here. She did something really important and made a huge difference to New Mexico,” Frank said. “I personally think she never got enough credit for the courage she showed here.”
Martinez’s office did not respond to interview requests before the publication of this article.
The Presidential Awards of Distinction were first awarded in 2013, the inaugural recipients being Steve R.J. Brueck, professor of electrical engineering, and Cleve Moler, emeritus professor of computer science.
Daniel Montaño is a staff reporter with the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at or on twitter @JournoByDaniel.