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THE VIEW FROM HERE

Clearer role needs to be established for crisis triage center

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a private mental health care provider from Arizona wins a government contract for services here by promising more than it is able to deliver.

Reading about recent problems at the county’s crisis triage center, under the management of Recovery Innovations International of Arizona, brought back bad memories from the Susana Martinez administration.

She ended the state contracts for all local mental health providers in 2013, and contracted with Arizona-based companies to replace them. We ended up with La Frontera, which lasted for a little more than a year before giving up, leaving a broken system behind.

County Commission members learned last week that they are having to pick up a far larger share of the costs of running the crisis triage center than they had been led to believe. In its pitch to the county, RI had suggested that 90 percent of patients served by the triage center would be covered by some form of insurance, leaving just 10 percent for the county.

That has proven to be wildly overly optimistic, as the county’s actual share is more than 30 percent.

There are several reasons for the discrepancy, and not all are the fault of RI. A different private organization hired by the state Human Services Department has failed to cover its responsibilities, and private insurance companies are allowed by law to exclude crisis care from their coverage.

But the problems at the crisis triage center go way beyond the fine print of health insurance policies. Ten years after it was first built, and one year after it was opened, people still don’t know what it is, and it’s still not being used as intended.

The county spent $2 million on construction of the crisis triage center in 2012, with the idea that it would be an alternative to jail for people having a mental health crisis. Police could drop them off, and get on with their shifts. That never happened, and the building sat empty until last year.

When it finally opened, the idea was that law enforcement officers could still bring people to the center for help, but they would have to voluntarily agree.

County Sheriff Kim Stewart has stopped utilizing the center since an incident last fall when the person they attempted to bring there was turned away because the center did not have a nurse on duty at the time.

Even with the county covering a larger share of the costs than expected, the center is still not serving enough people each day to be profitable. That’s clearly not because of a lack of need for mental health services in our area.

RI Vice President Marleigh O’Meara told the Sun-News that they could take from successful centers in other communities to keep ours afloat, but that’s not sustainable.

The county has expanded services offered at the center and is working toward increasing the maximum time for each stay, which will help. But for the center to ever reach its full potential, it must establish a healthy, professional working relationship with local law enforcement.

Sheriff Stewart has asked for a written memorandum of understanding, saying that without it her officers could be held liable in civil court for damages caused by those who they brought to the center. That agreement needs to be completed.

For 10 years, the empty building on Copper Loop served as a monument to government inefficiency. To change that, county officials and law enforcement must come together to clearly define what the crisis triage center is, and what it is not.

Walter Rubel is a freelance journalist based in Las Cruces. His 40-plus-year career includes work in Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas and— since 2002 — in New Mexico, covering Las Cruces and the state Legislature. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Las Cruces Bulletin. Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com.

Walt Rubel