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New Mexico lawmakers consider focusing investments in behavioral health in high-risk areas

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ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — In a state with some of the highest rates of suicide, mental illness and substance abuse-related deaths, legislation targeting high-risk areas with more money and treatment programs proven to work is winning bipartisan support.

A bill that would establish behavioral health investment zones across New Mexico passed the House on a 62-1 vote earlier this week and is now pending in the Senate.

Democratic Rep. Patricia Lundstrom of Gallup, the bill's sponsor, says New Mexico can no longer afford to throw money at the problem. The bill, she says, would provide a roadmap for the state and communities like her own to determine if they're investing wisely.

"It's not necessarily a matter of pointing fingers for me. It's a matter of let's get focused," she said in an interview. "Let's get razor-sharp focus on evidence-based programs that work, instead of this willy-nilly let's try this and let's try that. We're far beyond that now, and we need to put money where the need is."

Lundstrom tells her fellow lawmakers to look no further than Gallup, a city of 22,000 that sits at the edge of the Navajo Nation. For decades, the community has been struggling with alcohol addiction and the problems that come with it — from domestic violence and aggressive panhandling to people dying from exposure after passing out in fields or parking lots following a drinking binge.

Church groups, social workers and elected officials describe it as a revolving door: inebriates are picked up by police, hauled into protective custody and then released after sobering up.

Gallup Police Chief Robert Cron said more than 1,900 people were picked up just last month. In a year's time, that number can top 24,000, a figure more representative of a big city with more police officers and more behavioral health services.

PHOTO: This Aug. 14, 2014 photo shows the Gallup Detox Center in Gallup, N.M. In a state with some of the highest rates of suicide, mental illness and substance abuse-related deaths, legislation targeting high-risk areas with more money and treatment programs proven to work is winning bipartisan support. A bill that would establish behavioral health investment zones across New Mexico has passed the House on a 62-1 vote Tuesday, March 3, 2015, and is now pending in the Senate. (AP Photo/Gallup Independent, Cayla Nimmo)
This Aug. 14, 2014 photo shows the Gallup Detox Center in Gallup, N.M. In a state with some of the highest rates of suicide, mental illness and substance abuse-related deaths, legislation targeting high-risk areas with more money and treatment programs proven to work is winning bipartisan support. A bill that would establish behavioral health investment zones across New Mexico has passed the House on a 62-1 vote Tuesday, March 3, 2015, and is now pending in the Senate. (AP Photo/Gallup Independent, Cayla Nimmo)

"Our community is tired of it and I can get a general feel from the populous, they want more action because this behavior is not acceptable," said Gallup Mayor Jackie McKinney. "We need to help those who are reaching out and let them know there are alternatives and there are choices."

Gallup isn't alone. Statistics compiled by New Mexico health officials show Rio Arriba and Guadalupe counties have their own problems with alcohol abuse.

In Rio Arriba, Mora and Sierra counties, drug overdose deaths are through the roof while Mora, DeBaca and Catron counties struggle with high rates of suicide.

A recent legislative analysis found that of the half-billion dollars spent on services in New Mexico last year, only 11 percent went to proven programs.

"I understand what it takes to make some major investments and see very little return," said Lundstrom, a member of the House Appropriation and Finance Committee. "Our return on investment has been pretty low."

The bill was crafted as a result of the work of a task force in Gallup and research done by the Legislative Finance Committee, which determined that New Mexico has done a poor job of providing mental health and substance-abuse services for needy New Mexicans despite repeatedly overhauling government programs during the past two decades.

The most recent overhaul came last year when Gov. Susana Martinez's administration revamped Medicaid, including having managed-care companies take over providing behavioral health services for lower-income New Mexicans. That was a shift from a decade ago when the state formed a separate system for behavioral health, which was overseen by an interagency group.

The state budgeted $538 million for behavioral health services this year, with about $209 million of that for adults. The remainder of spending is on programs for children. Medicaid dollars make up the bulk of the funding.

Under the legislation, only non-Medicaid money could be targeted at the investment zones. How much money the zones get would depend on the risk and need of the geographical areas based on epidemiological data.

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