Department of Health spokesman Kenny Vigil confirmed late this week that the unit would close because of “underutilization.”
“The average daily census in fiscal year 2016 was five (5) teens,” Vigil said in response to Journal questions.
The decision brought swift reaction from people who have been working to combat the state’s drug addiction epidemic.
“It is very discouraging and really frustrating,” said Jennifer Weiss-Burke who lost her son to a drug overdose. “We’re in the middle of an opioid crisis in the country, and the state has one of the highest rates for drug overdose deaths. Why are you cutting back?”
The program has also been criticized by some addiction experts for a reluctance to use drugs like Suboxone as opioid replacement medications.
Vigil said the hospital will expand programs directed at adults, including long-term outpatient treatment.
The adolescent program at the state-run hospital in southeast Albuquerque was intended to provide short-term (30-day) medical detoxification and follow-up treatment for up to 20 patients ages 14-18 from across the state at an annual cost of $2 million a year.
Weiss-Burke now heads Serenity Mesa, a long-term rehabilitation program for people up to age 21 that receives patients from Turquoise Lodge after they have gone through the monthlong program there.
“We have a local continuum of care, that’s something we’ve never had before,” she said. “I don’t understand why you would demolish the system. Why not scale it back?”
Weiss-Burke worked with Gov. Susana Martinez and legislators to get the $2 million for the adolescent program put into the state budget during the 2013 legislative session.
“That’s the only adolescent detox in the state,” she said.
Vigil said the department believes one of the reasons for the underutilization of the program is that many teens do not want to commit to being in a treatment center 24/7, away from their home, family and peer support groups.
Bernalillo County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins said she was “shocked and disappointed” when told the adolescent wing would be closed.
“It is hard to reconcile that those beds are underutilized when we have waiting lists at other drug rehabilitation programs like the ASAP program at UNM Health Sciences Center,” she said.
The county owns the land where Turquoise Lodge Hospital and other treatment programs were built on Zuni SE.
“I really wonder what type of marketing they did,” Weiss-Burke said.
Vigil said the program managers tried to increase the number of patients without success.
State Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, chairman of the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee, said the closing of the program would be put on the committee’s agenda for next week.
Ortiz y Pino worked with the governor’s staff to get the money for the program in 2013.
“This is the latest in a cascade of closings of important services,” he said.
He said he suspects the closure of the adolescent program is due in part to the state’s budgetary problems, which he blames on the Legislature’s failure to develop a realistic budget.
It was the second blow to services for drug addicts in recent months. This spring, the state Human Services Department notified Licensed Substance Abuse Associates that they could not provide counseling without a licensed counselor present.
That effectively means that associates can no longer acquire the hours of counseling addicts they need to progress to become licensed counselors.
Critics of the Turquoise Lodge Hospital, including medical doctors, say the failure of the staff to use drugs like methadone and Suboxone in helping addicts get off heroin is one reason younger addicts don’t want to go the adolescent program.
“Methadone and buprenorphine (Suboxone) are the standards of care for opiate substance use disorder in this community, throughout the country and in most of the world,” said Dr. Bruce Trigg, an addiction specialist. “Detox without these medications simply does not work for the vast majority of people with opiate addiction.”
Trigg and other doctors told the Journal that they have met with Department of Health officials to urge the use methadone and Suboxone at the hospital but without success.
The current medical director of Turquoise Lodge Hospital, Dr. Babak Mirin, has been involved in controversies in the past when he was medical director at the state’s Sequoyah Adolescent Treatment Center and when the Human Services Department stopped Medicaid payments to his company when he was in private practice.
Questions about Turquoise Lodge were directed to Vigil by hospital staff.
“During a patient’s inpatient stay, if clinically indicated, they will receive opiate replacement therapy,” he said.
Vigil said that “opiate replacement therapy” could include the use of Suboxone at the discretion of the doctor.
Ortiz y Pino said the legislative committee would ask questions about the types of drug therapy used at the hospital and other matters having to do with underutilization.
“We’ve seen this issue of underutilization in the past in other programs, only to find that it was management creating the situation that led to empty beds,” he said.