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Ending Judicial Oversight of Mental Health System is Great News; But Let's Not Celebrate Yet

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Commentary:

The recent federal court ruling to relieve the state from judicial oversight of its mental health system stemming from the Jackson lawsuit of 1987 is a huge victory for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, state officials and taxpayers. The governor estimates that the case has cost the state $80 million during the last three decades.

The federal class action lawsuit was filed against the state by parents of those with developmental disabilities who were being held at state-run institutions in Fort Stanton and Los Lunas. The court found 18 different constitutional violations being committed at those facilities, and ordered the state to enter into corrective action. That corrective action continued, even after the two centers were shut in the 1990s.

Closing those facilities meant transferring services to community-based centers. In 2019, the two parties reached a settlement that was intended to ensure that services and safeguards will remain in place once the court order is lifted.

Last week, U.S. Magistrate Judge John F. Robbenhaar did just that, granting the state’s motion to dismiss.

“Defendants remedied the violations occurring at the institutions, and then ventured beyond that initial commitment and applied themselves to these new goals,” the judge wrote, adding that there was no evidence of lingering effects from the original violations.

It’s a significant victory for the state, and one that all of those involved with should be proud of. But I worry anytime government officials roll out the “Mission Accomplished” banner prematurely.

“Judge Robbenhaar’s order makes clear that the system of care in New Mexico is sound, sustainable and durable,” proclaimed Jason Cornwell, director of Developmental Disabilities for the Department of Health.

No it doesn’t. It means that, for the first time in decades, we’re meeting the minimal federal standards. But our community-based system, which was completely overhauled by the previous governor, has proven to be anything but durable since the closure of the two facilities.

While improvements have been made, even today the level of care in New Mexico varies widely depending on where in the state you live. Of our 33 counties, 32 are classified as Health Professional Shortage Areas for mental health. A 2015 survey found that fewer than half of the adults with mental illness living in New Mexico are receiving treatment. And, our only state hospital devoted to mental illness is in Las Vegas, NM, more than 300 miles from Las Cruces.

As for being sustainable, the state announced recently that it would use federal pandemic relief funds to eliminate the developmental disabilities waiting list for home health care, which had been as long as 13 years. Once again, that’s terrific news and cause for celebration. But it’s fair to question the sustainability of any plan that uses one-time money to pay for recurring expenses.

In Las Cruces, we’ve seen the improvements, but they’ve come in fits and starts. Our crisis triage center is finally open, but it’s not operating at full efficiency and it's costing the county more than expected. A promising new crisis response plan is in the works, but it did not come in time to prevent the recent police shooting of a 75-year-old woman suffering from dementia.

The end of federal court intervention is something to be celebrated. But that lack of oversight can not result in a lessening of our efforts in any way. There’s still far too much that needs to be done.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com