Not long after she earned her bachelor's degree in physical therapy from the University of Michigan in 1975, Deborah Armstrong began a commitment to home health care that has driven her career.
As a physical therapist at St. Joseph's Regional Health Center in Hot Springs, Ark., and then as clinical director at Community Rehabilitative Services in Phoenix, she saw a vital need for improvement in elder care.
"I like old people and I was bothered by the loss of power and control they have over their lives in care centers," she says. "If they are in their own homes, they still are in charge."
She moved to Silver City and then Santa Fe, where she joined Presbyterian Medical Services in 1991. For the next 10 years, in a variety of positions, which included establishing a home health agency in Santa Fe, she became more and more frustrated with regulations and laws that didn't make any sense. Fed up and with the financial support of Presbyterian, she went to law school to gain more skills that she hoped to apply to her work in elder and long-term care.
After earning her J.D. in 2001, Armstrong intended to return to the health-care field, but instead joined the New Mexico Agency on Aging, which now is the Aging and Long-Term Services Department, to oversee its elder rights programs. Within three years, she had been appointed to run the agency, which had recently been elevated to a cabinet-level department.
She has thrived on the daunting role of running one of the state's fastest growing departments — the staff has grown from 40 in 2004 to more than 300 and her budget has increased from $35 million to about $300 million, including additional responsibilities for Medicaid programs.
Armstrong credits her staff and support from the governor's office for keeping things running smoothly while she works to move the department forward. She has established a number of new programs, including a Medicaid long-term care program, an aging and disability resource center and "Mi Via", a nationally recognized home and community-based care program in Santa Fe, in which
participants can tailor their services to meet their needs.
"What I like about this job is that I have lots of interaction with seniors and people with disabilities around the state," she says. "I get to see and feel and touch the people we serve."
Q: What was your favorite class in law school?
A: Health Law and Bioethics
Q: Who was your favorite professor?
A: Rob Schwartz
Q: What is the last book you read?
A: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
Q: What is one law you would like to see changed?
A: The Medicare Part D law. It is too complicated and has too many gaps and hidden costs.
Q: What is the strangest thing that has happened in your career?
A: I have never practiced law, but I use my legal education in operating the department and every day I spend at the Legislature.
Q: What do you like best about your job?
A: That I can make an impact in the long-term care system and program development that will affect older citizens.