Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
It doesn’t look like much – a sandwich, water and a bed to rest.
But for Dion Becker, 52, it saved his life.
“Without these people and their care, I would be dead,” he said.
An emergency detox program started by Bernalillo County and several partners in May 2013 is saving hospitals hundreds of thousands of dollars and freeing up space at the Metropolitan Detention Center, according to a recent study by the University of New Mexico Institute of Social Research.
The institute analyzed intake information at the 25-bed program called Public Inebriate Intervention Program, or PIIP.
“It’s a much more humane way of dealing with chronic alcoholics,” said County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins, a proponent of the program.
Becker said he is a homeless veteran and ends up at the facility about one night per week.
The center is located in the Metropolitan Assessment and Treatment Services facility on the 5900 block of Zuni SE. While MATS is a larger detox program where people are admitted and stay three to five days for drug or alcohol treatment, the emergency detox program keeps people off the street for a night.
It takes walk-ins and people dropped off, usually by police officers or an ambulance. It also operates a shuttle that drives around the city Wednesday through Saturday nights in search of people too drunk to care for themselves.
On a visit Monday night, about 15 people were there, most sleeping or passed out under blankets.
Alexandra Toscova Tonigan and Paul Guerin, the authors of the study, pointed out that New Mexico residents abuse alcohol and drugs at a clip above the national average, and alcohol- and drug-related deaths per capita in New Mexico are more than twice that of any other state. Additionally, about one-third of the state’s alcohol-related car crashes are in Bernalillo County.
The purpose of the program is to provide a better place to take people who are drunk in public and may be a threat to themselves or others. Taking them to a safe place is a cheaper option than taking them to jail or an emergency room.
Taking them to the emergency room “creates an additional person we need to see that competes for resources with other patients,” Dr. Steve McLaughlin, the chair of the department of emergency medicine at the University of New Mexico Hospital, said of intoxicated people in the ER.
The study, published this month, analyzed intake information to see how much local hospitals and the county jail saved from the program.
In April and May of 2014, 974 people stayed overnight at the facility, according to the study. The researchers determined that 462 of those people were referred to the facility by a hospital, so they counted those people as a “diversion” from a emergency room visit.
Considering a visit to the ER would cost a hospital about $1,873, the authors determined the facility saved local hospitals at least around $865,000 in two months, according to the study. The program also saved local hospitals about $322,000 in diversions in October.
UNMH received the most savings from the hospital diversions, according to the study.
About 241 people were diverted to detox instead of the county jail during an eight-month period, according to the study. That saved the county about $57,000.
“I think it’s doing what it is supposed to be doing,” said Katrina Hotrum, the director of substance abuse programs for the county.
The program costs about $400,000 a year. About half comes from Bernalillo County and the rest comes from other partners of the program, including UNMH and the city of Albuquerque, Hart Stebbins said.
When people go to the facility, they are hydrated and fed, and given a place to stay for the night. In the morning, they are told about the longer addiction treatment program available in the same building.
There isn’t medical staff on site, but Natura Powdrell, a spokeswoman for the jail, said a doctor is available for phone consultations.
Hotrum said most of the people who stay at the detox facility are homeless. The study found that 90 percent are men. About 51 percent are Hispanic, 25 percent are Caucasian and 19 percent are Native American.
The study’s authors said police and the facility could do a better job tracking information about the facility.
For example, about half the people who stayed at the facility checked themselves in and the researchers had no way of knowing if they would have otherwise ended up at a hospital. And police who take people to the facility didn’t report where they would have taken the men or women had the facility not existed, according to the authors.
The study also recommended that the facility do a better job of tracking similarities between the patients, such as if they are homeless, have a mental illness or are a veteran, where in the city the people came from, and how police came into contact with them.
Journal staff photographer Adolphe Pierre-Louis contributed to this report.