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Editorial: ECHO Care should help NM ill and public coffers

A program that’s been up and running for less than a year already is showing promise of reducing health care costs and improving outcomes for people with complex illnesses, including mental health issues.

ECHO Care is an offshoot of the University of New Mexico’s Project ECHO, a web-based system that allows UNM doctors to treat patients with 20 illnesses statewide by working with primary care clinicians via teleconferencing. “ECHO” stands for Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes.

Project ECHO is a three-year pilot funded by a $6 million grant from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. It’s estimated just 5 percent of the state’s estimated 632,000 Medicaid patients account for about half of the state’s $4 billion annual Medicaid costs. Medicaid provides health care to low-income and disabled people.

Medicaid patients with poorly controlled chronic illnesses are eligible for ECHO Care if they have been hospitalized at least twice in the past year or have made three emergency room visits in the past six months.

Currently, ECHO Care has about 250 patients statewide with plans to enroll up to 750. Six teams operate in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Las Cruces and Las Vegas, N.M., home to the state’s mental institution – the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute – and an area in which many mentally ill people live in boarding homes.

ECHO Care workers visit patients at home, checking on their living arrangements and helping them stay on track with health and dietary plans. Sometimes workers take the patients their medications and food.

While this level of intensive, personalized care could be criticized as an example of an expensive nanny state, it’s likely to be less costly to taxpayers than paying for multiple hospital and emergency room visits.

And if patients are thriving, they are less likely to get into expensive medical or legal trouble. And that’s a trade-off that works for the patients and the community.

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.