SANTA FE – Lost in the hoopla over high-profile ethics and crime bills, legislation that would allow New Mexico judges to order individuals with a history of severe mental illness into treatment programs successfully wound its way through the Legislature during the just-finished 30-day session.
The bill, which is now in the hands of Gov. Susana Martinez, would make New Mexico the 46th state with an outpatient treatment law – commonly referred to as Kendra’s Law.
Poignant testimony for the measure came from Kathy Finch, an Albuquerque doctor who was attacked in her house and repeatedly stabbed last year. Finch’s husband, David, was stabbed to death in the attack. Their adult son, who had a history of behavioral problems, was charged in the assault.
In a Wednesday interview, Finch said it’s gotten easier to talk about her ordeal. In the weeks immediately after the attack, she said, she could not discuss it without sobbing.
“I told my story simply and quickly,” she said of her experience at the Capitol, during which she cited statistics to lawmakers about the increased likelihood that individuals with severe mental illnesses will commit violent acts if they’re not taking medication.
Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, the bill’s sponsor, said Finch’s testimony was important in the bill’s passage.
Papen, whose grandson also deals with mental health problems, said the legislation – based on a similar model in San Antonio, Texas – could help protect individuals diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other illnesses, in addition to their family members.
“It helps them have a calmer, better life, too,” Papen told the Journal .
Specifically, the bill, Senate Bill 113, would allow district judges to order certain people diagnosed with mental illnesses into mandatory treatment programs for up to one year. Treatment could include medication, individual or group therapy, and drug and alcohol testing.
To be eligible, an individual would have to be at least 18 years old, have a mental illness diagnosis and have a history of not following through with treatment.
Similar legislation had failed at the Roundhouse in previous sessions, but this year’s version got decisive votes in both legislative chambers – it passed the Senate 29-9 and cleared the House 63-3.
However, although the bill was more narrowly crafted than previous versions, opponents of the legislation say they still have concerns about its basic premise.
Jim Jackson, executive director of Disability Rights New Mexico, said his group opposes giving the government authority to decide what’s best for someone.
“I’m not aware of any other situation in state law where a competent adult is required to do something they don’t want to do in regard to health care,” Jackson said this week.
He also questioned whether the bill would actually improve public safety, because it would allow judges to order an individual to take medication – if that was part of an approved treatment plan – but would limit their ability to enforce such an order.
Papen, who co-sponsored this year’s bill with Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, said the new law might affect about 300 individuals in New Mexico.
It would be an opt-in program, and up to counties and cities to decide whether to participate.
“It’s something that is certainly a tool we can use,” Papen said.
She also said that though the bill would not allow a judge to hold an individual in contempt or order them physically restrained if they defy the court, she’s hopeful the “black robe” effect of having a judge involved would have carry weight for individuals on the receiving end of court orders.
In addition, failure to comply with a judge’s order could lead to an individual having to undergo an emergency mental health evaluation.
Although she supported the bill, Finch said she’s not sure whether the proposed law, had it been in place, would have made a difference in her son’s case.
She said she was never able to get her son, James Finch, an official mental health diagnosis because he refused to submit to one.
Before the August 2015 attack, Kathy Finch and her husband had restraining orders on their son and had installed security features to their family home. But James Finch allegedly managed to break into the house and stab both his parents.
He was wearing only his socks and covered with blood when police found him underneath a table outside the home. He’s facing charges of first-degree murder, aggravated battery and more, though a judge last week stayed the criminal case against him based on questions about his mental competency.
Kathy Finch said the bill approved by legislators will be successful only if there are effective behavioral health programs in place. There’s been huge upheaval in New Mexico’s system in recent years, after the Martinez administration froze Medicaid payments to 15 nonprofit providers in 2013 due to fraud allegations.
Although the just-passed legislation would provide a new option to family members concerned about a loved one, it would not provide additional funding for behavioral health programs.
“We need to re-establish that infrastructure,” Finch said, before later adding, “I think that mental health providers are even rarer than primary care providers.”
The governor has until March 9 to act on bills passed during this year’s legislative session. A Martinez spokesman said Wednesday that the governor is still reviewing the court-ordered treatment bill.