NM Behavioral Health System Can, and Must, Be Reformed

ALBUQUERQUE — New Mexico’s behavioral-healthcare system is in crisis. This is widely acknowledged. The administration of Gov. Susana Martinez took dramatic steps in 2013 when she suspended Medicaid payments to nonprofit providers due to suspicions of fraud. Right or wrong, this move set up partisan infighting that continues to this day.

Certainly the crisis is severe. The drug and alcohol related death rates are twice the national average. More citizens have mental illnesses than the national average, and the prevalence of suicide is greater in the Land of Enchantment than in all but three states, and rising.

But what’s more depressing than the behavioral-health epidemic is the state government’s inconsistent and failed attempts to address the problem. A new Rio Grande Foundation policy paper, “Healing Minds, Helping Taxpayers Reforming Behavioral Healthcare in New Mexico” outlines the issue and offers real-world solutions to the problem.

  • The Behavioral Health Collaborative has failed. Get rid of it.
  • States with high-performing behavioral health systems do not necessarily spend more on substance abuse and mental illness (besides, New Mexico does not have more available to spend). The key is to use what funding is available in the most effective ways possible.
  • An expansion of mental-health courts would be a wise investment. Diverting offenders with behavioral issues from jail to the mental health care system is proven to be effective.
  • For those with a chronic condition who refuse help despite multiple arrests and/or hospitalizations, a stronger approach is need. Assisted outpatient treatment is a court-ordered plan that can include medication, tests, therapy, training, or counseling. In the words of the Treatment Advocacy Center’s Brian Stettin, AOT “leads to reduction of hospitalization and criminal acts,” and reduces the number of “people…getting treated in jails or prison for mental illness.”
  • Finally, New Mexico’s behavioral-health workforce is inadequate – a harsh reality exacerbated by the governor’s decision to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. Training public employees in Mental Health First Aid and expanding the state’s system of peer support can help compensate for an insufficient number of professional caregivers.

“Reforming behavioral healthcare in New Mexico will be a long process,” said D. Dowd Muska, the Rio Grande Foundation’s research director. “But the kind of thinking that brought so many failures in the past shouldn’t be employed to forge a new strategy to combat substance abuse and mental disorders. The taxpayers and recipients of behavioral health services alike deserve more effective options.”