Justin Schatz is The Paper's daily news reporter. He has reported on New Mexico for KRQE News, Searchlight NM and the Santa Fe Reporter.

After a long, drawn-out legal battle with Acoma Pueblo, Indian Health Services has agreed to restore emergency services and in-patient care to the Acoma Cañoncito Laguna (ACL) hospital, (Cañoncito is now Too’hajilee.) IHS decided to suddenly close the vital location that served the Native communities in November 2020 in the middle of a global pandemic. The hospital was the only medical resource for most of these rural communities within a 24 mile stretch of I-40, and its closure was met with fierce backlash from community and state leaders. Governor Michelle Lujan Grishman referred to the agency’s decision to close the hospital during the pandemic as “devastating.” 

The announcement to reopen the facility was met with relief from the tribal communities. “This is a significant victory for the pueblo,” Acoma Governor Brian Vallo said. “I am grateful that my People along with other patients will no longer have to travel great distances to receive emergency medical care,” he said.

IHS agreed to reopen the facility to settle the lawsuit with the Acoma Pueblo. The Pueblo filed its lawsuit in January after the federal agency reduced staff and services for an emergency care unit, working with a skeleton crew with the intention of shutting down the facility. Judge Beryl Howell dismissed the claims that shutting down the hospital was within the government’s discretion. The judge challenged the agency for its failure to follow federal law that requires at least a year’s notice before closing a hospital. She said IHS had also failed to provide Congress with an evaluation of the impact caused by the closure. The judge closed by saying she hoped her ruling got the attention of the Biden administration.

Vallo responded to the settlement with optimism but still calls for further action to be taken. “This is a chance to redesign the hospital and determine what’s best to meet the medical and healthcare needs of both tribal and surrounding non-tribal communities going into the future,” Vallo said. 

The Paper. reported in January that residents of these communities had to be transported or EMS personnel now have to travel long distances to serve these communities. There has been at least one death directly correlated with the closure of the hospital. The closure forced residents seeking COVID-19 calls and other emergencies, requiring hospital staff to drive over an hour to Albuquerque to seek help. 

“We need a permanent solution. Unfortunately, the agreement is only in place until February of 2022 and there’s no assurance of continued or increased funding by the federal government. Congress and the IHS need to step up. Regardless, work on redesigning a new ACL begins today,” Vallo said.

Judge Howell said she would reopen the lawsuit if IHS failed to keep up its end of the agreement.