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Las Cruces residents concerned about psychiatric ward closure

With the closing of Memorial Medical Center’s psychiatric ward last year, some residents are concerned about the lack of mental health services in the area.

For Sylvia Ramirez, the lack of mental health facilities in southern New Mexico makes finding help for her family a struggle. A Las Cruces resident and a housekeeper for Memorial Medical, she said that her family suffers from psychiatric problems, including her son, her mother-in-law, and her then-fiance, who passed away in 2009 after battling mental illness and addiction.

Ramirez said that the closure of Memorial Medical’s psychiatric ward creates barriers for residents with mental health emergencies, and having a resource for individuals in crisis should be a priority within the community.

“We need the services here. Not just for me in general, but for the community. Definitely the community because there’s so much help that could be done by opening that one facility,” she said. “You do have those situations where a person is going through a tough time, and they need that emergency service. And there’s nothing. There’s nothing. Back when [5 West] was open, we did have that, where we could go and get the help that we needed at that time. But now, it’s really hard.”

Las Cruces residents concerned about psychiatric ward closure

Memorial Medical Center closed its psychiatric ward in August of last year. According to their lease with the city and county, … “if Lessee ceases to maintain the Hospital as a full-service general acute care hospital by not sustaining the same types and level of services as currently provided … Lessors shall have the right to terminate this Lease or retake possession of the Premises by eviction, re-entry or otherwise …"

When KRWG reached out for an interview with Memorial Medical’s CEO John Harris, a spokesperson said that Harris was not available for an interview. But the spokesman did send a written statement:

"At Memorial Medical Center, we share in the belief that behavioral health is vital service in our community. Unfortunately, like many hospitals across the country, staffing issues continue to be a challenge. The nationwide shortage of physicians as well as RN’s, forced us to temporarily suspend our behavioral health floor last year. Continuing services without these professionals is not possible.

Quality and safety have always been our priority. We are working diligently to recruit and hire the necessary professionals to return this service to Southern New Mexico as quickly as possible.

The decision to close this floor was not taken lightly. A provision of these services has always been based upon being able to staff this unit appropriately and safely. Once this has been achieved, we look forward to bringing these services to our community."

Peter Goodman is a Las Cruces resident, and has written about this issue in his weekly column that appears in local news outlets including KRWG.org.

“They claim to be near a solution which is great. The problem is that a year without a mental institution creates so much harm. There’s a lot of people that can’t go to El Paso, there are a lot of people, you may know some, that are in a situation where they function borderline on the street or in their home,” he said.

Jonny Coker
Peter Goodman

Goodman said that he’s pessimistic about Memorial’s reasons for closing the ward.

“We are seeing a private healthcare entity make decisions based on profit, and some other things that they want to do – maybe new things, are more profitable than the fifth floor, which is a duty under their contract, and a duty to the local humanity. And that takes a back seat it seems. Certain people who know more than I allege this. And it seems that way to me. That what the people need and what is required under the contract is taking a back seat to other endevours.”

Shannon Reynolds, Doña Ana County Commissioner for District 3, said that while Memorial may be in violation of their lease, it’s in the best interest of the county to not pursue any legal action.

“We have the contract, we can act on the contract. The problem is, do we act on the contract to the point where we put them out of business? That’s a delicate balance that we also have to consider. We need the services, we need the hospital, and we don’t want to force them into a corner where they have to say ‘well, I give up.’ So we need to be a good partner with them.”

Reynolds said that the best solution moving forward is to make New Mexico a more attractive place for medical providers.

“What I would say is the best solution to this kind of problem is, is more competition. Rather than having once facility that can provide the service, we need multiple facilities that can provide this service. That also goes back to the economic atmosphere of the community.”

As for Sylvia Ramirez, she said she’s hopeful for the reopening of Memorial’s Psychiatric ward, but agrees that more needs to be done in terms of attracting mental health services to the area.

“If my fiance at the time would have had the right counciling, the right assistance, maybe he wouldn’t have gone into addiction and tried to cope with his mental illness that way. And maybe he’d still be alive. I just don’t know, because there were never those services.”

Memorial Medical Center told KRWG that they are close to reopening the psychiatric ward, but could not give an exact date.

Jonny Coker is a Multimedia Journalist for KRWG Public Media. He has lived in Southern New Mexico for most of his life, growing up in the small Village of Cloudcroft, and earning a degree in Journalism and Media Studies at New Mexico State University.