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A yearslong effort to build a specialized facility to stabilize those in behavioral health crises is accelerating.
The University of New Mexico recently committed to matching Bernalillo County’s initial capital investment of $20 million for a crisis triage center and psychiatric hospital, and a new agreement spells out a plan for the two entities to select a site by the end of April.
The County Commission on Tuesday unanimously approved the memorandum of understanding and the county’s $20 million allocation, which Behavioral Health Services Director Margarita Chavez-Sanchez hailed as a significant milestone.
“I really think this is a huge solidification of the partnership between Bernalillo County and the University of New Mexico to address this massive gap in the (behavioral health services) continuum,” she said. “This has been what the voters have been asking for for many, many years.”
A crisis triage center is meant to help stabilize those who do not meet the criteria for a psychiatric hospitalization but might otherwise end up in jail or an emergency room because of their mental health problems or substance abuse disorders. Experts identified it as a critical need several years ago, but progress toward creating one has been incremental.
The County Commission in 2018 earmarked up to $30 million from a special, voter-approved gross receipts tax for a crisis triage center somewhere on UNM’s footprint. Last year, the county established a 16-bed version inside its existing detoxification center in Southeast Albuquerque while still touting the goal of eventually building a purpose-built center at UNM.
Chavez-Sanchez said it was only in the past few months that UNM Hospitals committed to contributing up to $20 million for a crisis triage center and a psychiatric hospital in partnership with the county.
County Manager Julie Morgas Baca called the new agreement a huge step forward.
“They’re committed,” she told the County Commission about UNM. “There’s a deadline. We’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”
UNM has not revealed any potential sites for the center, but a spokesman confirmed the $20 million set-aside and said in a statement, “We remain committed to a partnership to address the mental health needs of Bernalillo County.”
Some have criticized the county for how slowly the behavioral health tax revenue has trickled back into the community. The county began collecting it in 2015 and it is now yielding an estimated $22.5 million a year. About $70 million had accumulated as of late 2019, though officials say most of that is encumbered for future one-time expenditures such as the crisis triage center. Leaders have also approved programming that will eventually cost $19 million annually.
County Commission Chairman Lonnie Talbert on Tuesday referred to those complaints but said the agreement with UNM shows why it made sense to move more deliberately.
“You’re talking to a guy who doesn’t have patience, trust me. However, I’m glad we’ve taken the time (with the crisis triage center) to spend $20 million right, which is going to be matched, which is $40 million,” he said. “That’s a lot of daggone money.”