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MMC working to restore mental health services

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LAS CRUCES — Memorial Medical Center has signed a deal to return behavioral and mental health services to the Las Cruces hospital after a months-long hiatus that led troubled patients to be referred to other providers for behavioral care.

The loss of an admitting physician in the behavioral health unit last year prompted MMC to seek a long-term solution to providing in-patient psychiatric care. When Doña Ana County and the city of Las Cruces leased the hospital and turned over its operations to LifePoint Hospitals in 2005, part of the agreement was to continue providing the existing health-care services as long as it remained financially feasible. Behavioral health is one of these services that MMC is committed to offering to the community. Additionally, it was agreed that a county official and city official would serve on the board at MMC.

But the lack of an admitting physician at the units since September 2014 created a difficulty because a doctor is required for patients to be admitted to the behavioral health unit.

During the interim period, MMC continued to treat patients presenting to the emergency department. However, if further mental care was required, MMC made arrangements for the patient to be transferred to Mesilla Valley Hospital, Peak Behavioral Health Services in Santa Teresa or to the New Mexico State Behavioral Health Hospital in Las Vegas, N.M., according to hospital marketing manager Anita Rockett.

“A contract has been signed with EPOCH, a psychiatry management company,” said Steven Ruwoldt, MMC’s chief operating officer. “EPOCH provides psychiatric services throughout southern New Mexico and whose headquarters is here in Las Cruces. EPCOH and the hospital are now going through the credentialing process. This helps validate the qualifications of each provider that will be associated with the hospital.”

In December, Ruwoldt said that he was pleased that the new partnership will allow MMC to staff the behavioral health unit with a multi-physician and experienced psychiatric clinical team. Now that the contract is signed, the start of the new team will be dependent on the length of time needed for practitioners to be credentialed to practice at MMC.

Once credentials are secured, it will ease the burden of the hospital not being able to admit patients who need psychological care.

It is not known how long the credentialing process will take. That is a cause for concern among members of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which for months has pressed MMC to reopen the mental health wing, commonly known as Five West.

“It’s wait and see,” said Micah Pearson, vice president of the local NAMI chapter. “If they’ve taken on EPOCH and are going to open up and provide services I’m glad. If they are going to do it, hooray. If it’s another delaying tactic … I’m going to say wait and see. When I see what comes from it I’ll decide whether it’s time to let them off the hook.”

“Credentialing is our process to assure that we have high quality physicians working at the hospital and treating our patients. The hope is that MMC has now identified a long-term solution to patients requiring behavioral health in-patient care. I think that we’ve been trying to do as much as we can for patients who are coming through, short of in-patient placement,” Ruwoldt told the Sun-News in December. “We try to stabilize them in the emergency room, work with them, and work with other agencies that we can refer the patients to.”

EPOCH Behavioral Healthcare Inc. is a practice management organization that has one of the areas fastest growing networks of licensed independent practitioners providing mental health and addiction services.

Epoch Behavioral Healthcare was designed to meet the practice management needs of the psychiatric and behavioral health practitioners of the community as well as partner groups and facilities, according to the company website. Many of EPOCH’s practitioners provide support and services to local psychiatric hospitals, community mental health facilities, and other therapeutic settings.

Hospital role

Memorial Medical Center is one of two main places that Doña Ana County residents experiencing mental health episodes are taken after being placed into what’s known as protective custody by law enforcement officers or a judge. It’s not the same as a criminal arrest, authorities said. But it is involuntary. Advocates have said the step is taken when a person is deemed a serious threat to themselves or others because of their condition.

The Las Cruces Police Department takes protective-custody residents to emergency rooms at MMC and MountainView Regional Medical Center, where an initial evaluation of the person is carried out, advocates have said. If a doctor deems that further care is needed, the person can be admitted, involuntarily, for in-patient psychiatric care for up to a few more days.

There’s not a psychiatric unit at MountainView Regional Medical Center.

When MMC’s Behavioral Health Unit is fully operational, a protective-custody patient travels from that hospital’s emergency room up to the fifth floor, or Five West, advocates have said.

A New Mexico state law allows for residents in crisis to be taken into protective custody for up to 24 hours by police for the purposes of a psychiatric evaluation, experts have said. The time limit is in recognition that a person’s civil rights are being infringed upon. Via a separate route, a judge also can order that someone be taken into protective custody.

Jason Gibbs may be reached at 575-541-5451.


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