SANTA FE — State legislators killed a bill Friday that would have created a pilot project in southern New Mexico to treat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The same bill cleared the state House of Representatives last winter on a 70-0 vote before dying in the Senate.
This time, nobody on the Military and Veterans' Affairs Committee voted to endorse the bill.
It called for the pilot project using virtual reality treatments to be based at Western New Mexico University in Silver City. The program would have been tied to therapist training and a master's degree program in social work.
A draft of the bill called for $250,000 in state funding each year from 2015 through 2018. The sponsor, Rep. Dianne Hamilton, R-Silver City, said the amount would have been lower.
State Sen. William Payne, R-Albuquerque, challenged the proposal. He said PTSD treatments should be linked to the medical school at the University of New Mexico, not a social work program downstate.
Payne also said the program would serve the greatest number of veterans if it were in Albuquerque. About one-third of the state's population of 2 million is in the Albuquerque area.
If the bill had any chance, it ended when Timothy Hale, cabinet secretary of the state Department of Veterans' Services, spoke against it.
"This is a waste of money," Hale told the committee.
His comment swayed every committee member, Democrat and Republican, that the bill should not receive the committee's endorsement.
Hale said the U.S. Department of Defense and the University of Southern California were spending millions on PTSD treatment and research. He said his state agency directed combat-weary veterans to programs in New Mexico with a proven record of success.
Following Hale's lead, many committee members said using virtual reality to simulate tanks and deadly streets in Iraq to treat PTSD was not new. They questioned pouring money into a pilot project in Silver City rather than putting money where it could do the most good.
"If we're not going to do it right, let's not do it," said Sen. Bill Burt, R-Alamogordo.
Hamilton was not at the hearing, but she said later that the bill's rejection came as a surprise, given the wide support it received only eight months ago.
"I'm very disappointed," she said in a phone interview. "If the secretary isn't in favor of it, I don't have a chance."
Hamilton said she disagreed with the ideas of tying a PTSD program to the UNM medical school and anchoring it in Albuquerque.
"Everything is in the metro area. I've got veterans in Silver City area who have a hard time traveling to Albuquerque."