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Bernalillo County readying crisis triage center

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Too often, Maggie Hart Stebbins says, those experiencing a mental health crisis wind up in an emergency room or even jail.

The Bernalillo County Commission chairwoman said that’s because they have nowhere else to find support.

But that should not be the case much longer.

Freshly licensed under new state regulations, the county’s first crisis triage center could open this summer, providing what officials say is a layer of mental health stabilization services not presently available in the community.

The county is creating the 16-bed facility on the grounds of MATS, its drug and alcohol detoxification center in Southeast Albuquerque. It marks a step toward eventually establishing a full-fledged crisis triage center somewhere on the University of New Mexico footprint.

Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins

“That was one of our first promises to the community because it’s been identified over and over as a huge gap in what’s available for people living with mental illness or substance abuse disorders in Bernalillo County,” Hart Stebbins said. “This is an interim arrangement. We do hope to have a purpose-built facility (eventually), but we realize that (we’re) a few years away from getting that done, so this is an excellent interim solution.”

Katrina Hotrum-Lopez, director of the county’s Behavioral Health Services Department, said the center will fill a void in the current behavioral health landscape. The MATS facility will serve those who do not meet the criteria for psychiatric hospitalization or those who need some step-down help after leaving the hospital.

“We should be one of many doors, but this is a much-needed door and service that hasn’t been provided,” Hotrum-Lopez said.

Without such crisis care, individuals who need it are often “cycling through either our jail or hospital emergency rooms,” Hart Stebbins said.

Roughly half of the county jail’s population at any given time receives some sort of behavioral health services, the commissioner said.

Meanwhile, emergency room usage has increased.

The University of New Mexico Hospital’s Psychiatric Emergency Services facility saw patient visits climb 33% between 2015 and 2018, according to a recent presentation created by the county’s behavioral health department.

Once it opens, the MATS center will accept both men and women 18 and older. The residents could stay up to 14 days.

Residents may get counseling, medication management, medication assisted treatment for addiction (such as suboxone) and help accessing other services. UNM would provide medical care through an on-site clinic.

The county has budgeted $3 million for the center’s annual operations, though the costs could go down once it starts billing Medicaid.

The funding comes from the 1/8 cent behavioral health care tax Bernalillo County voters approved in 2014 and began paying the following year. Collections to date total about $75.2 million, and the County Commission last year approved spending up to $30 million at a future date to develop a crisis triage center at UNM that could provide a wide range of services, including psychiatric urgent care, partial hospitalization, and a “specific drop off and observation areas for law enforcement and corrections,” according to the commission’s motion.

UNM has not identified a specific site, and Hotrum-Lopez said that facility is probably two or three years away. Until then, she said Bernalillo County will focus on “stabilization” at its MATS unit, and UNM will expand its existing psychiatric center on Marble Avenue.

UNM’s $1.8 million project will add new evaluation areas for psychiatric emergency care. Whereas it currently has six evaluation rooms, it will add new evaluation, consultation and observation areas to roughly double the patient capacity by early 2020.

“There is also additional space for expanded telehealth capabilities and support areas for this service,” Rodney McNease, UNM Hospitals’ executive director for government affairs, said in an email to the Journal. “The plan will also allow for the development of a living room model connected to PES (Psychiatric Emergency Services) with increased access to peer support services and care coordination activities.”

The New Mexico Department of Health only recently began licensing crisis triage centers, but the department did not respond to questions about how many have been issued so far.

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