U.S. Sen Tom Udall visits Project ECHO (12.14.16)
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall meets with Project ECHO founder Sanjeev Arora, MD.

Two members of New Mexico’s Congressional delegation visited the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center Wednesday to highlight new federal legislation that will promote critical health care initiatives.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall toured the offices of Project ECHO, UNM’s signature telehealth program, which uses tele-technology to bolster the ability of local providers to manage complex conditions. He recently co-sponsored a bipartisan bill intended to expand the ECHO model around the country.

U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, from New Mexico’s Third Congressional District, held a news conference to call attention to new opioid addiction treatment options that will become available under the 21st Century CURES Act, a bipartisan measure signed into law by President Obama earlier this week.

Udall was hosted by Project ECHO founder Sanjeev Arora, MD, a professor in the UNM Department of Internal Medicine. Arora, who specializes in treating hepatitis C, conceived of ECHO in 2003 as means for linking primary care providers in rural areas with experts at UNM, affording them an opportunity to learn how to better manage their patients without having to send them to the hospital.

“Everyone benefits when knowledge like this is developed by UNM and then pushed out as quickly so that it reaches patients,” said Udall, a long-time Project ECHO supporter.

Project ECHO recently announced that it has 103 replication partners – 64 in the U.S. and 39 in other countries.

“This is a different way of practicing medicine, and we believe we have just touched the surface,” Arora said as he explained the highlights of ECHO’s teleconferencing system.

“Technology is able to decrease the cost of collaboration,” he added. “With teleconferencing, we are able to train people to benefit their communities. At the same time, the process strengthens UNM's role as a unique health care resource for the state.”

Lujan, whose district stretches across much of northwestern, northern and eastern New Mexico, was welcomed by Richard L. Larson, MD, PhD, the Health Sciences Center’s executive vice chancellor and vice chancellor for research.

Lujan said the 21st Century CURES Act will provide states with block grants that will enable them to fund addiction treatment programs. This is of particular importance to communities in northern New Mexico, which often see multigenerational patterns of opioid abuse and suffer disproportionately from overdose deaths.

“We have to change the stigma of those fighting addictions,” Lujan said. “We must have expanded treatment, particularly in rural areas where providers are scarce.”

Larson noted the Health Sciences Center’s efforts to reduce the over-prescription of opioids by providers, as well as its behavioral health and substance abuse treatment programs. The new legislation also adds $4.8 billion in funding for the National Institutes of Health over the next 10 years, allocates $1.8 billion for cancer research and sets aside $1.45 billion to promote precision medicine.

“We couldn’t be more pleased with the passage of this legislation,” Larson said.

Lujan was accompanied by three guests whose personal experience underscored the severity of the problem.

John Paul Herrera and Monica Apodaca, a young couple living in El Rancho, N.M., are both recovering heroin users. “I’ve had friends die on me,” Herrera said. “I’ve overdosed myself. It’s real and it doesn’t discriminate.”

Lupe Salazar of Española, founder of an advocacy group called Barrios Unidos, teared up as she described her efforts to obtain addiction treatment for her son and daughter. Cemeteries are filling up and the jail are overcrowded, she said.

“Every week we open the paper and someone has passed away,” she said. “We can’t bring them back.”