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UNM: Bernco comes up short on behavioral health services

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Significant strengths in behavioral health services exist for Bernalillo County residents, but considerable weaknesses are prevalent and need to be addressed, the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center reported Tuesday.

The 29-page report, “Meeting Challenges, Finding Opportunities: Bernalillo County Behavioral Health Services Assessment,” finds sufficient capacity in the county for the treatment of severe mental illness at the UNM Psychiatric Center, Presbyterian-Kaseman, Veterans Administration Healthcare and Lovelace Downtown.

The report by the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences also finds that primary care providers and community mental health clinics are able to take care of most less-serious conditions on an outpatient basis.

However, people with chronic mental illness and substance abuse issues suffer when it comes to getting care in the Bernalillo County. The report blames previous public policy decisions and changes in reimbursement structures, which, together, have led to an egregious lack of community-based options for such patients.

“People with substance use disorders have long suffered from increased stigma, which acts as a barrier to accessing services,” the report states. “Insurance coverage for addictions services is often sporadic and historically has been less well funded than mental health services. This dynamic has resulted in a reduction of services for those seeking care for substance abuse issues.”

Because of a combination of risk factors – “poverty, a lack of social services infrastructure and historically lower level of health care coverage” – the state as a whole is home to a disproportionately high number of people with mental health and addiction problems, the report states. Moreover, “New Mexico also has an ethnically diverse population that tends to access treatment less frequently and enter treatment later in the course of a disorder.”

With a population of 675,000, including 515,000 adults, the county is home to an estimated 13,400 people with bipolar disorder, 5,700 schizophrenics, 22,700 residents with serious mental disorders and 100,000 with any mental illness.

The report notes that the county “faces well-documented challenges” and that “much of the burden of dealing with these problems falls on the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center.”

The report’s primary authors are Dr. Mauricio Tohen, professor and department chair; and Rodney McNease, executive director (Behavioral Health Finance) of UNM Hospitals.

The report calls on providers to develop intermediate- and community-based levels of care, instead of adding to the existing acute-care capacity. The result would be “better access and mental health outcomes” by developing intermediate- and community-based levels of care, rather than adding to existing inpatient acute care facilities. “Tackling these problems will require a sustained, multi-pronged response,” it states.

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