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Gov. cites ‘real risk – people die’ in boarding homes

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

A man who says he lives in a boarding home sits on a bench in Las Vegas in 2016. There are about 100 boarding homes in New Mexico, mostly in the Las Vegas area. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration plans to ratchet up state oversight of boarding homes that provide housing to mentally ill clients – a step toward addressing a longtime state government blind spot.

The first-term Democratic governor said there are roughly 100 boarding homes that are currently unregulated. Most are in and around Las Vegas, the site of the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute, the state’s only public psychiatric hospital.

The Department of Health’s proposed rules, which have not been publicly released, would require the boarding homes to be licensed and subject to periodic agency inspections. The rules would also cover fire safety, staffing levels, crowding and bathroom facilities, Lujan Grisham said in a recent interview.

“There’s real risk – people die, people are abused, people go to the hospital,” Lujan Grisham told the Journal. “There can be some really nefarious, high-risk issues.”

The Health Department has not regulated boarding homes for years; agency officials during former Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration said they did not have the legal authority to adopt new regulations.

A 2017 bill that would have compelled the Department of Health to develop new rules regarding boarding home sanitation and safety standards but would have left it up to local governments to decide whether to adopt the rules was vetoed by Martinez, who said it was unnecessary.

But Lujan Grisham’s administration has taken a more hands-on approach to the issue, with the governor contending that the current lack of state government oversight has made it hard to keep track of boarding homes and their conditions.

“If you’re a family member, you may not even know to call us about a complaint or we may not be aware of something,” she said. “That’s problematic.”

Some advocates for increased state boarding home oversight have described the proliferation of facilities in the Las Vegas area as a “mental health ghetto,” partly because of reports of verbal and physical abuse and financial exploitation, as well as violence and drug abuse by residents.

A 2016 Journal investigation found that those released from the mental health hospital who resided at some of the boarding homes lived in squalid and crowded conditions and sometimes went hungry because of inadequate meals provided by operators.

In addition, two men released from the Behavioral Health Institute died of carbon monoxide poisoning in 2013 at a boarding home where they were paying a total of $1,100 a month to live in a backyard shed without plumbing.

In a recent legislative hearing, Rep. Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque, thanked the administration for moving forward with the boarding home rules.

“People have died literally because of our lack of oversight,” Thomson said.

Lujan Grisham, a former state Cabinet secretary under three governors, acknowledged that increased state monitoring of boarding homes would require more staffing and funding for the Department of Health.

Although the dollar amount is unclear, she said some of the money could come from fines and licensing fees levied on boarding home operators.

Meanwhile, the boarding home rules are part of a larger effort by the Lujan Grisham administration to make state government more responsive and accountable to residents of boarding homes and other types of assisted-living facilities – and their relatives.

“I’m dedicated to getting it right, and my Cabinet is dedicated to getting it right,” the governor said.

Department of Health spokesman David Morgan said the proposed boarding home rules will be published in the coming weeks. He said they will be aimed at ensuring boarding home residents have “safe and supported” living conditions.

During the recent legislative hearing, Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel said the administration is working to craft durable regulations that will “live on,” even through future changes in leadership.

“We have an obligation to do this,” Kunkel said.

Journal Capitol Bureau reporter Dan McKay contributed to this report.


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