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Papen bill does not force meds on mentally ill

Tim Gardner’s Jan. 5 guest column betrays a basic misunderstanding of Sen. Mary Kay Papen’s assisted outpatient treatment bill.

Gardner, of Disability Rights New Mexico, mischaracterizes assisted outpatient treatment as “forced treatment,” making it sound as if mentally ill outpatients who violate their treatment orders could be punished or forcibly medicated. In fact Papen’s bill would prohibit such responses.

An outpatient could not be held in contempt for violating the order. Instead, non-adherence would trigger an evaluation (including a possible brief detention for a psychiatric exam) to determine whether hospital care has become necessary.

To call that “forced treatment” is hyperbolic and misleading. It is certainly less “forced” than the hospital commitments and arrests that individuals in need endure now.

Gardner seems confused about the differences between Papen’s 2015 bill and prior attempts by other lawmakers to bring assisted outpatient treatment to New Mexico. He claims that the new bill is “supposedly based on New York’s Kendra’s Law,” but that was much more true of the bills in years past.

New York requires every county to create an assisted outpatient treatment program and provides financial support for this mandate. By contrast, Papen’s proposal is tailored to empower county and city outpatient treatment programs in New Mexico to utilize assisted outpatient treatment, but imposes no mandates.

That is why Papen has avoided referring to her bill as “Kendra’s Law.”

The failure to grasp this point leads Gardner down several dead ends.

As an assistant New York State attorney general in 1999, I helped draft the legislative findings Gardner quotes on what is necessary “if court-ordered treatment is to achieve its goals.” Our point was only that a statewide system of court-ordered treatment, as established under Kendra’s Law, required a partnership between state and local mental health authorities.

Similarly, the funding for services that New York attached to Kendra’s law, which Gardner wildly exaggerates, was provided to fund the mandated creation of assisted outpatient treatment programs in every county. Again, Papen’s bill does not seek to create such a system.

The pertinent question is not whether Papen’s bill would establish an assisted outpatient treatment program exactly like New York’s, but whether it represents a significant advance from where New Mexico is now.

It surely would.

Forty-five states already authorize assisted outpatient treatment. While New York clearly leads the pack in achieving statewide availability, there is no denying the numerous cities and counties across the nation that utilize assisted outpatient treatment to vastly improve treatment outcomes for their most vulnerable residents with severe mental illness. Most of them do so under state laws much more akin to Papen’s bill than to Kendra’s Law.

In 2015, Papen aims to unshackle New Mexico mental health providers who see value in assisted outpatient treatment and want to marshal the resources to give it a try.

The city of Albuquerque attempted to enact its own assisted outpatient treatment ordinance in 2006. It was struck down by a court ruling that it could not be done without a state law, but Mayor Richard Berry has expressed eagerness to reconsider the issue if permitted.

Opponents have yet to offer a compelling reason why the New Mexico Legislature should continue to stand in the way.

The Treatment Advocacy Center is located in Arlington, Va.