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County is fixing its behavioral health system

Reigniting a regional behavioral health system that was gutted in 2013 is challenging. For that, I express my gratitude to the champions of this monumental undertaking.

More than 80 community volunteers who have served on our subcommittees, committee subject matter experts, county commissioners, members of the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Government Commission and the dedicated team at the Department of Behavioral Health Services all deserve credit for implementing this initiative.

Contrary to (assertions in) the Nov. 21 editorial, Bernalillo County has a plan for its Behavioral Health Initiative (BHI). It involves filling in service gaps, providing safety net services, addressing recommendations in the 2014 Behavioral Health Care Task Force Report and beginning to rebuild a behavioral health system.

Short-term and long-term tasks must involve partnerships. System dismantlement caused a mass exodus of behavioral health providers. Providers that remained had limited opportunities to bill Medicaid for services, further eroding system responsiveness and capacity.

Behavioral health is a complex and layered topic that suffered in 2013 because of the decision not to pursue matching Medicaid dollars for behavioral health services. Since 2015, Bernalillo County and others have worked to rebuild the behavioral health system with a culture of care, leverage behavioral health funds against federal grants and Medicaid dollars, and create a robust system with future capacity.

Reignition efforts resulted in securing a crisis triage center license under new regulations promulgated by the Department of Health in 2018. Rebuilding a system meant rebuilding trust with providers and reinvigorating the work force. Both are happening locally. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration and the Legislature deserve credit for promulgating regulations and leveraging local dollars in order to pursue Medicaid dollars.

System rebuilding in Bernalillo County has launched more than 20 programs, committed more than $70 million into life-changing programs and served more than 52,700 people of all ages. A few program examples include mobile crisis teams, the Resource Reentry Center, community engagement teams, suicide prevention and peers supports drop-in centers. The county’s partnership with UNMH is essential. On Monday, Bernalillo County will open a crisis triage center at 5901 Zuni SE at the Comprehensive Assessment and Resiliency through Excellence facility, formerly known as MATS, with UNMH support. A crisis triage center is a specialized facility that was absent from the behavioral health system. UNMH and Bernalillo County are also working to open a similar center on the Health Sciences Center campus.

It takes time to change laws, create regulations and operational procedures, get licenses, leverage existing funding, and foster partnerships. Are we making progress? Yes!

One building serving a specific population is not going to solve the complex issues with which our community deals every day. … Collectively, all BHI programs are already changing lives, addressing homelessness, providing solutions and treatment and services, and assisting in the pursuit of wellness. We want treated individuals to be contributing members of our community.

The BHI is a legacy project that will serve our community for generations to come. It is building a continuum of care – thoughtfully and carefully, and always with leveraging dollars in mind – that seeks to serve every generation, every gender, regardless of their financial status, to help individuals manage their condition and achieve wellness. Our work is far from over, so be assured Bernalillo County will continue to work with our partners using your taxpayer dollars responsibly and transparently to address this critical need.

Bernalillo County Behavioral Health Initiative subcommittee chairs Robert Baade, Betty Whiton, Nancy Jo Archer, Mark Clark and Dr. Kathy Finch co-authored this column.

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