New Mexico’s picture of health, as captured by the state agency that tracks it, is a mix of good, bad and complicated.
The state Department of Health’s report card on its goals for fiscal year 2017 shows a state that is improving on subjects as varied as teen birth rates and access to medical marijuana cards. But it also indicates New Mexico continues on a dreary path of more and more alcohol-related deaths.
The struggle with drug overdose, always a headache and a heartache for state health experts, looks better in comparison with the national picture – but in essence, the numbers here remain relatively unchanged. It’s the rest of the nation that has taken a turn for the much worse.
In releasing the report last year, the department detailed its first year of progress on a three-year plan to help make New Mexico a healthier state. The report gathered the most recent data available through July, which sometimes meant data from 2016 or before.
The scorecard is the first of its kind published online, department spokesman David Morgan said Tuesday (Jan. 2).
“This combines the measures we normally work on to try to be better, to strive for better service, and to be the health and safety net for all New Mexicans,” Morgan said.
Among the report’s highlights:
Teen birth rates continue to decline: For years, New Mexico has had one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation.
That hasn’t changed. But as rates of teen pregnancy have dropped across the nation, so, too, have the numbers of teenagers giving birth each year in New Mexico. Over the past four years, teen birth rates have declined almost 40 percent.
In 2012, the Department of Health reported a birth rate of 46.8 per 1,000 teenage girls between the ages of 15 and 19.
By 2016, that number was down to 29.4 per 1,000.
Access to medical cannabis cards is getting faster: State statute requires the Department of Health to either approve or deny requests for medical cannabis cards within a 30-day timeline.
The turnaround time was near perfect in 2015.
But in 2016, it had slowed considerably – down to 68 percent of applicants getting a decision on whether they’d get a card within a month.
“There were patients coming in all the time saying their card had expired and is there anything we can do?” recalled Josh Alderete, store manager at New Mexican Natural Medicine in Santa Fe.
The 2016 backlog was caused by skyrocketing enrollment, which jumped from 14,000 to 25,000 in a year, a Department of Health spokesperson told The New Mexican at the time.
That wait has eased. More than 90 percent of applicants were approved or denied within the allotted time frame in 2017, according to the data.
“I have definitely heard from a lot of patients that it’s gotten better,” Alderete said.
The report also shows the percentages of adults and adolescents who smoke tobacco have been declining in recent years. As of 2015, 11.4 percent of state teenagers smoked, the scorecard shows. In 2016, the most recent numbers available, 16.6 percent of adults said they were smokers – an all-time low.
Rate of alcohol-related deaths jumps: The state leads the nation in alcohol-related death rates, according to the department.
And that rate has been climbing, steadily, for years.
In 1999, 45.2 of every 100,000 deaths in the state were suspected to be related to alcohol, department data shows.
By 2016, the most recent reporting year, that number had jumped to 66 per 100,000.
Asked whether increased alcohol-related deaths in recent years might be due to better monitoring of alcohol deaths, Morgan called the trend a “true increase” – indicating the numbers are worse.
“Alcohol consumption patterns are changing among demographic groups,” Morgan said in an email. “As a result, we are seeing increases in alcohol-related death in the state.”
Other problematic areas for the state: deaths from heart disease and stroke increased from 2015 to 2016; New Mexico’s suicide rate continues to be one of the highest in the nation; its childhood obesity rate, as framed by third-graders who are obese, rose for the second straight year.
Taos County’s rate of diabetes and suicide were higher than that of the state as a whole, according to a 2016 report by Holy Cross Hospital.
Drug overdose deaths: From 2014 to 2016, New Mexico’s rate of drug overdose dropped from second highest in the nation to 12th.
While this looks like good news, state officials warn the rate of drug overdoses in New Mexico hasn’t actually improved. In reality, New Mexico’s high rate of drug overdose deaths – 25.2 per 100,000 people in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control – has remained relatively stable in recent years. It’s drug overdoses in other parts of the country that have continued to skyrocket amid the backdrop of an opioid epidemic.
“While we are encouraged by this news, we still see the tragic impacts of the drug epidemic on our families and communities,” New Mexico Health Secretary Lynn Gallagher said in a news release last week about the national ranking. “We must stay focused on reducing overdose deaths.”
Department of Health data on overdose prevention, separate from the report card, show improvements in a number of metrics since late 2016.
Between September 2016 and September 2017, the number of New Mexicans receiving prescribed opioids dropped almost 7 percent. The number of patients receiving opioids from multiple doctors at once dropped 13.5 percent. And the number of people filling prescriptions for opioid treatment medications jumped almost 25 percent.
Contact Sami Edge at (505) 986-3055 or firstname.lastname@example.org. This story first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sister publication of The Taos News.