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100 Years and the Start of a New Era

January 9, 2019 - Cabinet Secretary - Blog

Change is natural. It happens all the time, but did you know one thing that hasn’t changed for 100 years? The New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH) has been here to provide for a healthier New Mexico.

I’m Kathyleen Kunkel, and I am proud to serve all of you as NMDOH’s latest Secretary of Health. What a way to begin my job, in this, our department’s centennial year.

There is an ancient Greek philosopher named Heraclitus who said, “Change is the only constant in life.” 

While our department has been a constant for a century, we’ve certainly evolved.  NMDOH started as the State Board of Health in 1919, when New Mexico was just a few months into what was a worldwide flu pandemic that lasted 1918 until 1920, killing anywhere been three to five percent of the world’s population.

New Mexico was then as it is now – a state large in miles but small in population. Still, even with public health efforts put in place, of an estimated 15,000 New Mexicans who contracted the flu, more than 1,000 died. Compare that to the 215 state residents killed fighting in World War I, and you get a sense of the severity of the public health problem that lead to our inception.

Over the decades, people have come and gone, but much of the core mission of the NMDOH has remained the same: providing health care and education and preventing the spread of communicable diseases. We’ve also expanded in ways no one would have thought of 100 years ago from basic immunization to health facility licensing, to providing services and support for New Mexicans with developmental disabilities to the Medical Cannabis Program.

One change for our department that we’ve known was coming is one we’ve known since our state election last November. That change came Monday, January 7th, when incoming Governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham named me the Secretary-Designate for the New Mexico Department of Health.

I am honored by the Governor’s decision and am looking forward to serving as your next Secretary of Health. I’m glad to have the opportunity created by outgoing Secretary Lynn Gallagher to have this blog to introduce myself to you and introduce you to your Deputy Cabinet Secretaries.

I have served with NMDOH for seven years now, most recently as Deputy Director of our Developmental Disabilities Support Division. I’ve also served as DOH general counsel. I am a former assistant state attorney general where I represented various clinical licensing boards and understand some of the issues that our health care practitioners deal with to provide New Mexico with competent care providers. I started my career as a pediatric social worker at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, eventually working my way through most of the clinics and hospital wards. There, I learned first-hand about the health care needs of the people of New Mexico and the dedicated health care professionals who work hard to serve them.

One of the great things about working at the New Mexico Department of Health is no one is ever alone; we are a team. We’re joined by new Deputy Secretary Dr. Abinash Achrekar. Abinash is a cardiologist who has worked in Albuquerque since 2002. He has been practicing for more than 16 years. A graduate of Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, Abinash will be overseeing Public Health Division, Epidemiology and Response Division, the Division of Health Improvement, our Scientific Laboratory and more.  

Gabrielle Sanchez-Sandoval remains our other Deputy Secretary, and I’m grateful to have her still with the department after our change of administration.  Gabrielle, also previously served as our general counsel before being named Deputy Secretary in 2015. She will continue to oversee all our facilities – such as the Behavioral Health Institute in Las Vegas and our New Mexico Rehabilitation Center in Roswell among others. She will also lead our Developmental Disabilities Support Division, Office of General Counsel among other duties.

If it sounds like we have a lot to do, it’s true, but so does everyone else at the New Mexico Department of Health. The three of us are the new NMDOH cabinet, but for any change in the names in the Office of the Secretary the one thing that has stayed true these last 100 years is our mission of promoting health and wellness, improving health outcomes and assuring safety net services for the people of New Mexico.

Former President Barack Obama once said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”  I look forward to working for you, our constituents, as we begin our department’s second century of service.