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Editorial: Crisis-triage bill tackles NM’s jail, drug abuse woes

With only about a day left before the Legislature adjourns, state lawmakers are scrambling to get their bills onto the governor’s desk. And while there are many worthy bills hanging in the balance, we hope lawmakers don’t overlook one important one the state Department of Health says could decrease drug overdoses, alcohol-related deaths and even suicides.

We’re talking about Senate Bill 220, a measure that would make it easier to operate a crisis-triage center in New Mexico. The Senate passed it without opposition Monday, and it is currently in the House. The bill is sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces.

Commissioners in several counties are pushing for the legislation, saying that for people living with mental illness or battling addiction, prompt access to treatment during a behavioral health crisis can determine whether a person gets the care he or she needs or gets arrested and taken to jail. They say the bill would, among other things, provide Medicaid reimbursement for a wider range of short- and long-term crisis services and allow much-needed flexibility in where those services are provided.

“We recognize that every community is unique, with needs and priorities specific to its residents. That’s why SB 220 is so important; it enables local governments to provide an array of crisis services and creates flexibility in state laws and regulations,” Bernalillo County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley said in a guest editorial published in last Saturday’s Journal.

“We need options for residential, nonresidential, hospital-based or freestanding crisis-triage centers to meet the crisis service needs of our communities.”

The guest editorial was also signed by county commissioners in Santa Fe, Doña Ana, Otero and San Juan counties and by the president of the New Mexico Association of Counties.

In a fiscal impact report prepared on the bill, the Department of Health notes there could be higher costs for crisis care, but adds those would likely be offset by lower costs for incarceration.

Bernalillo County officials have been saying for years that a crisis response center is needed locally as an alternative to jails and hospital emergency rooms, which are often the places where people with substance abuse problems and behavioral health disorders end up. We suspect communities throughout this state are in the same boat.

This legislation clears away some of the obstacles that have stood in the way of communities establishing crisis-triage centers. Passage of SB 220 will allow Bernalillo County to move forward with its planned crisis-triage center.

We realize there’s still lots to do in the few hours that remain in this legislative session, but we urge state representatives to get this life-saving measure across the finish line.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.