FRI: House approves bolstering protections for trans New Mexicans, + More
House approves bolstering protections for trans New Mexicans — Albuquerque Journal, KUNM News
The state House approved an expansion to the state’s Human Rights Act Friday that would further protect transgender New Mexicans from discrimination.
The Albuquerque Journal reports the measure, House Bill 207, updates several categories of protected classes already listed in the act and adds gender.
The act is broad, requiring that entities that accept public funding — like schools and public contractors, along with the government itself — don’t discriminate on the basis of race, religion, sex, ability and other factors.
However, much of the debate on the House floor focused on trans people — especially in schools.
Republicans unsuccessfully sought to exempt schools from the law, centering the argument on whether trans girls should be allowed to use gender-segregated facilities in line with their identities.
While Republican Rep. Rod Montoya expressed worry about teens seeing each other's naked bodies in locker rooms, Democratic Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil argued the amendment would put trans students in physical and emotional danger.
Republicans also proposed an exemption for religious institutions that receive public funding. That amendment also failed.
The bill passed the House on a 47-to-20 vote with some Republicans joining Democrats in support. It now heads to the Senate.
New Mexico's COVID-19 public health orders to end March 31 - Associated Press
New Mexico is extending health orders related to COVID-19 one final time through the end of the month.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham made the announcement Friday that she is renewing an executive order but will let it expire after March 31.
"While we're still seeing COVID cases, our preparedness and collaborative work have helped turn a once-in-a-century public health emergency into a manageable situation," Lujan Grisham said in a statement.
She also urged people, especially the elderly and immuno-compromised, to get vaccinated.
The New Mexico Department of Health had maintained measures such as a mask mandate for public indoor spaces and a requirement for health care workers and certain other employees to be current on vaccinations.
The public health orders were last extended in January, as the omicron variant was driving up the case count. New Mexico's hospitals were operating under standards of care that prioritize immediate medical emergencies.
New Mexico was one of five other states — including Texas and Illinois — that still have such declarations.
California's coronavirus emergency officially ended Feb. 28, nearly three years after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued the nation's first statewide stay-at-home order.
The lapsing of the orders signals an end to the expanded legal powers of governors to suspend laws in response to the once mysterious disease.
President Joe Biden announced in January that the federal government will end its own version May 11.
New Mexico teen pleads no contest in fatal school shooting - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
A 14-year-old New Mexico boy accused of shooting and killing a classmate in 2021 has pleaded no contest to a charge of second-degree murder, prosecutors said Thursday.
The boy will remain in state custody until he's 21, the maximum sentence allowed for a child under New Mexico law. The Associated Press does not generally identify juvenile crime suspects.
The shooter opened fire during the lunch hour at Washington Middle School in front of numerous students who had returned for the fall semester just two days earlier. Police said the victim — 13-year-old Bennie Hargrove — was trying to protect another boy who was being bullied.
Authorities had said the student who shot his classmate brought his father's gun to school.
The August attack left New Mexico's largest school district reeling and marked the second shooting in Albuquerque in less than 24 hours. At the time, the city was on pace to shatter its homicide record and top officials described the violence as a scourge. The record was broken that year and again in 2022.
The middle school shooting spurred legislation that ended up stalling during last year's session. Lawmakers are once again considering a similar measure that would criminalize negligent gun storage in cases where a child brandishes the weapon or uses it to hurt someone.
The bill narrowly passed the House and is poised to be considered by the full Senate.
The teen was initially charged with an open count of murder and unlawful carrying of a deadly weapon on school premises. His attorney had raised issues of the boy's competency early on, saying the teen needed counseling and treatment for mental health issues.
"This was a terrible tragedy for everyone involved," Bernalillo County District Attorney Sam Bregman said in a statement Thursday. "It changed the Hargrove family forever and devastated hundreds of children, parents, school faculty and the community."
Bregman said he hoped the plea would bring some closure to the family, who was in court Thursday. Family members told judge that Bennie was missed and that it hurt even more that another child was the one who committed the crime.
Abortion clinics crossing state borders not always welcome - By Kimberlee Kruesi, Sarah Rankin And Hilary Powell Associated Press
The pastors smiled as they held the doors open, grabbing the hands of those who walked by and urging many to keep praying and to keep showing up. Some responded with a hug. A few grimaced as they squeezed past.
Shelley Koch, a longtime resident of southwest Virginia, had witnessed a similar scene many Sunday mornings after church services. On this day, however, it played out in a parking lot outside a modest government building in Bristol where officials had just advanced a proposal that threatens to tear apart the very fabric of her community.
For months, residents of the town have battled over whether clinics limited by strict anti-abortion laws in neighboring Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia should be allowed to continue to hop over the border and operate there. The proposal on the table, submitted by anti-abortion activists, was that they shouldn't. The local pastors were on hand to spread that message.
"We're trying to figure out what we do at this point," said Koch, who supports abortion rights. "We're just on our heels all the time."
The conflict is not unique to this border community, which boasts a spot where a person can stand in Virginia and Tennessee at the same time. Similar disputes have broken out across the country following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn the landmark 1973 decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion.
As clinics have been forced to shutter in Republican-dominant states with strict abortion bans, some have relocated to cities and towns just over the border, in states with more liberal laws. The goal is to help women avoid traveling long distances. Yet that effort does not always go smoothly: The politics of border towns and cities don't always align with those in their state capitals. They can be more socially conservative, with residents who object to abortion on moral grounds.
Anti-abortion activists have tapped into that sentiment — in Virginia and elsewhere — and are proposing changes to zoning and other local ordinance laws to stop the clinics from moving in. Since Roe was overturned, such local ordinances have been identified as a tool for officials to control where patients can get an abortion, advocates and legal experts say.
In Texas, even before Roe was overturned, more than 40 towns prohibited abortion services inside their city limits. That trend, led by anti-abortion activist Mark Lee Dickson, has since successfully spread to politically conservative towns in Iowa, Louisiana, New Mexico, Nebraska and Ohio.
Under Roe, the high court had ruled that it was unconstitutional for state or local lawmakers to create any "substantial obstacle" to a patient seeking an abortion. That rule no longer exists.
While such local ordinance changes are no longer necessary in Texas, which now has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, Dickson says he and others will continue to pursue them in other states with liberal abortion statutes.
"We're going to keep on going forward and do everything that we can to protect life," he said.
In New Mexico, which has one of the country's most liberal abortion access laws, activists in two counties and three cities in the eastern part of the state have successfully sought ordinance changes restricting the procedure. Democratic officials have since proposed legislation to ban them from interfering with abortion access.
In the college town of Carbondale, Illinois, a state where abortion remains widely accessible, anti-abortion activists have asked zoning officials to block future clinics from opening after two already operate in town. Thus far, they've been unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, some of the states that have severely restricted abortion access are trying to make it harder for residents to end their pregnancies elsewhere. Employees at the University of Idaho who refer students to a clinic just 8 miles (13 kilometers) away in the liberal-leaning state of Washington could face felony charges under a recently passed state law.
Perhaps no other place so neatly encapsulates the issue as the twin cities of Bristol, Virginia, and Bristol, Tennessee. Before Roe, an abortion clinic had operated for decades in Bristol, Tennessee. After Roe, which triggered the Volunteer State's strict abortion law, the clinic hopped over the state line into Bristol, Virginia.
That's when anti-abortion advocates began pushing back. At the request of some concerned citizens, the socially conservative, faith-based Family Foundation of Virginia helped draft an amendment to the city's zoning code that says, apart from where the existing clinic sits, land can't be used to end a "pre-born human life."
"Nobody wants their town to be known as the place where people come to take human life. That's just not a reputation that the people in Bristol want for their area," said foundation President Victoria Cobb.
The amendment has stalled before the Planning Commission as the city's attorney, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and others question its legality. Meanwhile, the board of supervisors in Washington County, which surrounds Bristol, passed a similar restrictive zoning ordinance on Feb. 14, and at least three counties have since adopted resolutions declaring their "pro-life stance," according to the Family Foundation.
Before Roe was overturned, such zoning restrictions would have been unconstitutional, noted ACLU attorney Geri Greenspan. Now, however, "we're sort of in uncharted legal territory," she said.
It's a struggle that residents like Koch weren't expecting.
In 2020 — when Democrats were in full control of state government — they rolled back restrictions on abortion services, envisioning the state as a safe haven for access. Virginia now has one of the South's most permissive abortion laws, which comforted Koch when Roe was overturned.
Now, however, her relief has been replaced by anxiety.
"I realized how little I knew about the workings of local government," she said. "It's been a detriment."
The Bristol Women's Health clinic is battling multiple lawsuits but would not be affected by the proposed ordinance unless it tried to expand or make other changes. While some residents oppose the facility, "they're more afraid that this industry is going to expand and that Bristol is going to just become a multistate hub of the abortion industry," said the Rev. Chris Hess, who as pastor of St. Anne Catholic Church has advocated for the zoning change.
Debra Mehaffey, who has spent more than a decade protesting outside abortion clinics, said people are coming to Bristol from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, "all over to come get abortions, you know, because they can't get them in their state."
"So it will be great to see it totally abolished," she said.
Clinic owner Diane Derzis, who has owned numerous other abortion clinics — including the one in Mississippi at the center of the Supreme Court's recent decision — downplays the pushback. She said she's grown accustomed to protests and even experienced the bombing of a separate clinic.
But Derzis is also girding herself for many more post-Roe battles in the future.
Abortion "is just under attack and it's going to be for years," she said.
At New Mexico St, a meltdown that runs beyond basketball - By Eddie Pells AP National Writer
Of all the troubling video made public over a year of crisis at New Mexico State – from the brawl involving basketball players to the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old, allegedly by one of those players, to the police interviews with the coach afterward – one 42-minute log of footage might best explain how the school is in the mess it is today.
In that video, captured on police body cam, an officer is interviewing the university's $500,000-a-year chancellor, Dan Arvizu, and his wife, Sheryl Arvizu. The officer had been called to the couple's house to resolve a dispute that came out of Sheryl's suspicion her husband was having an affair with a staff member at New Mexico State.
Dan Arvizu denied the affair. Sheryl Arvizu ended up being booked into jail on a battery charge that was later dismissed. Officials at the school's Office of Institutional Equity looked into the allegations for possible conflict-of-interest issues, though there was no report filed.
During these fraught days at New Mexico State, where the once-treasured men's basketball program has been shelved for the season after that fatal shooting and a gruesome allegation of locker-room hazing, the Arvizu police video is a reminder of who is ultimately responsible at a university that has, in many eyes, become unhinged in areas well beyond basketball. The Associated Press spoke to more than a dozen people affiliated with the university, many of whom expressed deep concerns with leadership at the school.
"People are embarrassed," said Jamie Bronstein, a history professor who also serves as vice chair of NMSU's faculty senate. "People feel terrible for the students."
In a letter sent to "Our NMSU Community" after the AP first published this story, Arvizu acknowledged that his family had been through "a deeply personal situation."
"Importantly, there is no truth to the allegations made that evening," the letter said. "It was a low point for me, and since that time, my wife and I have worked to rebuild our relationship. I am confident this matter has not impacted my ability to lead our university."
There have been seven different presidents, interim presidents and chancellors over the past 15 years at the state's second-biggest university, where more than a quarter of the 14,000 students are the first members of their family to attend college.
"What makes NMSU such a special place is the huge opportunity to change students' and their families' lives by increasing our students' social mobility," business professor Jim Hoffman said. "This is why excellent leadership, thoughtful decision making and wise use of (limited) resources are so important."
New Mexico State has always been able to make a name for itself every March thanks to a men's basketball program that traditionally thrives on the strength of players and coaches who don't always take the traditional route to Division I. But this year, the program disintegrated.
The unraveling can be traced to an NMSU football game last Oct. 15 in which a handful of the school's basketball players got into a brawl with students from rival New Mexico. Video of the melee shows junior forward Mike Peake among those throwing punches.
Five weeks after the fight, the players headed to Albuquerque for one of the season's most anticipated games, against the Lobos. Peake broke curfew and went to the dormitory complex of one of the students involved in the fight at the football stadium.
Video from the apartment parking lot shows Peake being attacked with a baseball bat before exchanging gunfire with the student, Brandon Travis. Peake was taken to the hospital with leg wounds that required surgery. Travis died from his gunshot wounds.
Peake, who said he was acting in self-defense, has not been charged with a crime. Police video shows Peake in a hospital bed asking to get his gun back because "that's my only weapon." Guns are not permitted on New Mexico State's campus or on school-related road trips.
The Aggies continued to play for nearly three more months. On Feb. 12, Arvizu canceled the season after allegations surfaced about three players ganging up on a teammate in what a police report said included a possible incident of criminal sexual contact.
Two days later, Arvizu fired the coach, Greg Heiar. The player who made the allegations said similar hazing incidents had been occurring since summer. Arvizu said he was never made aware of it. Bannister said school policy calls for employees to report misconduct to the Title IX office and that the university is "looking at additional support systems" for the future.
Both the shooting and hazing incidents are being sorted out by internal and third-party investigations.
Current and former employees the AP interviewed described scenarios in which top administrators refused to hold themselves or others accountable, inside and outside the athletic department. One said the "guardrails" designed to protect students and faculty had all but disappeared.
"Because there's so much churn in our upper administration, we never get to the point of hammering out who is actually accountable for upholding policies," Bronstein said.
Some of the dissatisfaction among faculty was resolved last year, when President John Floros stepped down and Provost Carol Parker was fired. Arvizu's five-year contract runs out in June and it won't be renewed, leaving NMSU to face the basketball crisis with top leadership again in transition.
The athletic director's job seems secure: When Arvizu dismantled basketball for the season, he went out of his way to back Mario Moccia, who is in his 10th year as AD.
Moccia defended his hiring record and insisted the vetting process for Heiar was solid; it was the first head-coaching job at a Division I school for the 47-year-old Heiar.
The Aggies have been to March Madness 11 times since McCarthy left after the 1997 season, always as a double-digit seed with a reputation for giving the big boys trouble; a year ago, they knocked off UConn in the first round.
There won't be any postseason this year. Two players quit after the hazing allegations.
"The entire program has caught on fire, and the fire has burned down everything, and all that's left are the roots," said Jim Paul, the former NMSU AD who fired McCarthy.
Lawmakers concerned bill to tighten state water commissioner requirements is too strict - Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico
The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission oversees stream systems in the state. Lawmakers want more advanced expertise and diversity standards for future commissioners. People that work with the commission say the proposal could cause issues for the state to find people to actually meet the new job requirements.
Senate Bill 58 would compile a new list of qualifications people must meet in order to get the unpaid commissioner gig with the Interstate Stream Commission, a subdivision of the Office of the State Engineer.
It includes having at least 10 years of experience with New Mexico water resources, being employed or acting in specific water-related positions and having minimal geographic overlap with other commissioners. It would also increase the number of Indigenous members that serve on the commission.
The legislation passed unanimously through the House Agriculture, Acequias and Water Resources Committee on Thursday, despite repeated concerns brought up by different legislators. It next goes to the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee. The bill was amended in a Senate committee and passed that chamber with a 30-6 vote.
It goes to the governor’s desk if passed by the House. In 2019, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham pocket-vetoed similar legislation.
Sen. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe) is sponsoring the bill. He said the goal is to diversify commissioners. This, he hopes, creates the right balance to get his proposal through the Roundhouse again and get Lujan Grisham’s signature this time.
“The makeup of the board really should be more reflective of the diversity of water users in the state,” Wirth said.
A few legislators raised worries that not many people will meet all these new standards, leading to a lack of applications. Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell (R-Roswell) said there could be a very narrow field of applicants that fit under this legislation.
“That pool that we’re going to be able to find people that are actually qualified to work in and that want to work in it, we’re deflating,” she said.
The Office of the State Engineer has similar concerns, according to the bill’s fiscal impact report. It said these standards would make it hard to find candidates “that meet the complex and burdensome restrictions or who would be willing to volunteer to do so.”
The Interstate Stream Commission is already dealing with general staff vacancies affecting operations.
Flooding after the Black Fire destroyed acequias in southern New Mexico. Stewards for those water systems compiled a list of disaster recovery financial aid options. A few funding opportunities can come from the Interstate Stream Commission, but stewards have said there’s been a lack of communication from the state.
Jonathan Martinez is the acequia lead at the commission. He said at a disaster recovery workshop last week that his understaffed team was already dealing with a lot of other work before being tasked to help with disaster assistance needs.
“We are overwhelmed,” he said. He added that the commission was trying to fill more positions.
Rep. Kathleen Cates (D-Rio Rancho) said this legislation could help the Interstate Stream Commission carry over more knowledge during turnover. Another new requirement under the bill is staggered terms so that not all the commissioners leave at once.
“You’ve created a process to keep historical information at all times and not just a political move of appointments every six years,” she told Wirth.
Wirth said his legislation was spurred by a previous Interstate Stream Commission that was dysfunctional, insular and politicizing issues.
“The whole purpose of broadening this is, quite frankly, to bring in other voices, to bring in other perspectives and to get away from how narrow it was,” he said.
Rep. Marian Matthews (D-Albuquerque) asked if this might go in the opposite direction and just make the board an inside group.
“Are there going to be fresh ideas or are there going to be innovative ideas coming?” she asked.
Ezzell said she can still see the appointees becoming political, despite the bill’s intention against that. The bill specifies that a certain number of members can’t be from the same congressional districts or state engineer water rights districts. There are also limits on people being from the same irrigation or conservancy districts or sections.
It also lays out that there can’t be more than five commissioners from the same political party. That could cause issues, according to the legislative fiscal impact report.
“By calling out political affiliation, this bill will unnecessarily politicize water management decisions,” the report reads.
Wirth said with the support of the agencies and officials directly involved in recommending Interstate Stream Commission candidates to the governor, he’s hopeful that this legislation will work out.
“The fact that we’ve come up with a bill here that both the state engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission support leads me to believe that we’ve found a balance,” he said, “that they feel like they can get those candidates.”
THE PROPOSED QUALIFICATIONS
The governor appoints eight members of the Interstate Stream Commission. The ninth is the state engineer. Senate Bill 58 would require that the eight appointed commissioners meet these standards:
- Four members from irrigation or conservancy districts or sections
- One member from an acequia or community ditch
- One member from of a state drinking water utility that provides at least 500 acre-feet of water annually for domestic use
- One member from the Water Resources Research Institute OR who’s a civil or environmental engineering faculty member at UNM or NMSU
- One hydrogeologist with expertise in state ground water resources who is also a faculty member of the N.M. Institute of Mining and Technology OR is a professional engineer with a New Mexico consulting engineering practice in water resources or water utility engineering
Out of the eight appointed commissioners, at least two members must be from a tribal nation and Pueblo.
All of the commissioners must also meet these qualifications:
- No less than 10 years experience with state water resources
- No more than two members can be from the same irrigation or conservancy district or section
- No more than two members can be from the same Native nation, tribe or Pueblo
- No more than three members can be from the same congressional district
- Members have to reside in at least three different state engineer water rights districts
Larry Williams needed a Navajo translator to speak to his doctor; he died after his visit - Jeanette DeDios, Source New Mexico
It was the early morning on Feb. 6, 2018 and Larry Williams started to experience shortness of breath, disorientation, hallucinations and couldn’t walk.
The 67-year-old spoke primarily Navajo and relied on his wife, Lenora Williams, to help translate for him. However, that day she was unable to go with him to the San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington.
According to his family, the hospital didn’t consider his language needs and did not call for a Navajo interpreter to be present with him during the visit with doctors.
The language barrier led to a gap in the examination. Williams’ altered mental state was missed by the San Juan medical staff, which would have helped the hospital determine that he was suffering from sepsis, according to a lawsuit the family has filed against San Juan Regional Medical Center.
Instead, the San Juan medical staff misdiagnosed Williams, treated him for urinary tract infections and sent him home, his family said. He became more confused and his death got worse as the day went on. That evening, his wife Lenora decided to take him back to the hospital where they discovered he was suffering from severe septic shock.
His condition worsened and Williams died the next day from respiratory failure.
“How could this have been missed?” said Lynlaria Dickson, his daughter.
Larry Williams was a “fighter”, who was described by his family as someone that never backed down from anything. He was a retired welder, a father of seven children with his wife, Lenora. He was like a cowboy who refused to accept that he couldn’t do anything and would find a way. He was the heart of his family and they would go to him whenever they had problems.
After coming to terms with his passing, the family decided to take action.
In 2021, they found representation with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the Fine Law Firm. On Wednesday, their attorneys filed a a motion asking the courts to hold the San Juan Regional Medical Center liable for failing to provide Larry Williams with a Navajo interpreter, which they argue led to his misdiagnosis and death.
“We did everything we could, we trusted the medical providers at San Juan Regional Medical Center because they’re the experts, they know all the medical terminologies, and everything that happens to a person’s body,” Dickson said. “They should be able to find the answers, or tell us what was happening.”
Dickson and her sister Lariat Williams, were with their father during his first visit to San Juan Regional Medical Center and noticed the medical staff’s lack of communication with him.
“They did not talk to my dad, they didn’t ask him if he was okay or what was wrong. It was more or less, like the doctor was talking to us instead of talking to my dad,” said Dickson.
In their response to the lawsuit, the hospital’s attorneys deny any wrongdoing by the medical staff. They do say that Williams was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection at his first visit but that he died from “unavoidable medical complications or pre-existing conditions unrelated to the conduct of the (hospital).”
The sister’s tried their best to tell the doctor of their father’s symptoms and communicate back to him, but they aren’t fully fluent in Navajo.
“And we just kind of thought we were being brushed off just because we were Native American,” said Williams.
The family is well familiar with that feeling from the bias they say they face around their community.
“There’s a lot of discrimination, we know that. I go into Farmington, I get the looks all the time, and I hear people saying stuff,” she said.
The family said the options that Native Americans have for healthcare are slim when you live in rural areas of New Mexico.
“We all come to Farmington, to the San Juan Regional Medical Center, thinking we’re getting the best care possible because it’s a bigger hospital than our small Indian hospitals. Our Indian hospitals don’t have a lot of experts to see us in regards to the struggles that we face on the Indian reservations,” Williams said.
Preston Sanchez, the family’s attorney with the ACLU, said the hospital should be held liable “for not attending to the needs of their patients.”
“The San Juan Regional Medical Center is to blame for not training their staff, not providing adequate language services for patients,” Sanchez said. “What this is revealing to us is that there’s likely a much greater violation of civil rights at a systemic level that we’re starting to become aware of around the lack of language as assistance provisions.”
The hospital’s lack of accommodation for Larry Williams could be seeded under prejudice motives according to his daughter, Lariat.
“If we were a different skin color, maybe they would have treated my dad differently, they probably would have talked to him instead of talking to us,” she said. “They really need to pay attention that they’re serving the whole population, not just one certain race.”
San Juan County has a predominant Native American community, Williams says that hospitals in that area need to pay more attention to their patients’ needs like the need of an interpreter for people who only speak Navajo.
Dickson says that her father’s language barrier must have been a frightening situation to be in when he was in the hospital and was unaware of what was happening.
“Imagine someone just approaches you and starts sticking needles in you. Not explaining to you what they’re trying to do. Was that even explained to my father, at all?” she said.
The Williams family’s reason for bringing their tragedy to the public is so it doesn’t happen again.
“We just don’t want this to happen to other families,” said Lariat Williams.
The loss of Larry Williams is still felt by his family everyday. His rich knowledge of traditional Navajo customs and traditions are lost with his passing.
“Some of his culture teachings, I don’t even know because my dad didn’t get that opportunity to share it with me,” said Lariat Williams. “I really wish I would have asked more questions.”
Sanchez (Jemez, Laguna, Navajo) says that there are ways to prevent this kind of situation from happening again by providing awareness to the root issue that there are laws in place that require translators for people in medical emergencies.
“It requires that we as citizens of New Mexico, that Indigenous people of New Mexico, that our lawmakers and our courts are aware of not only this, the scenario in which Larry was subjected to, but aware of the fact that there are laws that require the standards to be applied,” he said. “The standards must address the language needs, and cultural needs of the patients.”
Lynlaria Dickson still keeps her father’s memory alive through his grandchildren by reminding them to “keep making grandpa proud, he’s watching us, and he’s still here with us.”
Bill proposes to take people to crisis centers for mental health aid instead of jails or hospitals - By Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico
Instead of law enforcement taking people to jails or hospitals, New Mexicans could be sent to crisis triage centers to help with mental health needs.
This will happen if House Bill 373 makes it through the Roundhouse.
The legislation passed unanimously through the House Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday. That was the bill’s first committee. It still has a long journey ahead in the two and a half weeks that remain this session.
Jamie Michael is the Health and Human Services director in Doña Ana County, the home of a crisis triage center. She acted as an expert on the bill on Wednesday.
Right now, Michael said law enforcement can only take people to jails or emergency departments. “I think we all agree that those two environments are not the best for most people who are experiencing a crisis,” she said.
This bill would tack on crisis triage centers as an option to take patients, voluntarily or not. Michael said a range of people could be brought over, from someone who’s intoxicated to a person that’s suicidal to someone just having a bad day.
“The primary purpose was really to take that opportunity of a crisis and connect people to care, connect people to medication, connect people to outpatient or inpatient services,” Michael said.
She said most patients in other states who come into involuntarily transfer decide to get into voluntary care “because it’s a nicer place than a jail or an emergency department.”
There are only three licensed crisis centers in the state, located in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces. Another one is in the works at the University of New Mexico Hospital, also in Albuquerque.
A few lawmakers voiced concerns about how this bill would apply to areas in rural New Mexico where there aren’t crisis centers nor the resources or staff available to set them up.
“We are a mostly rural state. I am so happy that we have success in Las Cruces and we can copy that. That’s very exciting,” Rep. Kathleen Cates (D-Rio Rancho) said. She continued to ask if a rural county center could be run by one or two people.
Michael said the crisis triage centers that are already set up can act as regional resources. “We want to serve our neighboring counties,” she said.
Anyone living in the Four Corners of the state would still have to travel hundreds of miles to access the existing centers. For someone living in Hobbs, it would be a four and a half hour drive spanning over 250 miles to get to the closest center in Las Cruces.
Bill sponsor Rep. Doreen Gallegos (D-Las Cruces) said figuring out the long drive to actually make it to the facility would be up to law enforcement and sheriff’s departments. Michael said emergency services could also help handle transportation.
To get the patient back home, Michael said centers can offer transportation services, like the one in Doña Ana County does. Or, she said, family or friends could come pick them up.
“Transportation is always a challenge,” she said.
The bill’s Fiscal Impact Report pointed out a few other concerns.
New Mexico has had a health care provider shortage since before the pandemic, and the centers would need to have enough staff to keep up with an influx of involuntary patients. The report said the Department of Health would survey crisis triage centers to see if there are enough officials to handle the new patients.
There’s also a potential legal risk, according to the report, because patients who are involuntarily admitted to hospitals must be evaluated psychiatrically to ensure they aren’t a harm to themselves or others.
Rep. Joanne Ferrary (D-Las Cruces) asked about this, and Michael said there would need to be specific standards and trainings implemented at the centers.
Part of the bill’s intention is also to reduce incarceration rates, but the small number of centers could limit that potential, according to the report.
Rep. Stefani Lord (R-Sandia Park) questioned what law enforcement officers are supposed to do if a facility is full, but Michael said the model is designed to never turn anyone away. She said across the country, centers have never been completely full. That’s because they have open spaces that don’t require beds for patients and it’s a quick turnaround, she said.
“People are moving through the facility so quickly that we’ve never come to a place where it’s been too full.”
Rep. Harlan Vincent (R-Ruidoso Downs) said he’s concerned about the safety of the providers and patients in these facilities. He asked if there is security or law enforcement present, and Michael said no.
She said it’s not necessary because the purpose of the facility is to aid with behavioral health needs, not typically violent behaviors. And for some people whose symptoms come off as frightening or aggressive, there are staff who know how to work with that, she said.
“The security comes from how the clinician and peers are trained to interact with individuals,” Michael said.
Ben Ray Luján reintroduces legislation to bolster recreational biking - By Alice Fordham, KUNM News
Democratic U.S. Senator Ben Ray Luján this week reintroduced an Act in Congress designed to identify federal land that could be used for long-distance bike trails.
Luján joined senators from North Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming to pass the Biking on Long Distance Trails Act which would require the Department of the Interior to identify areas where long-distance bike trails could be developed or completed, install signage and issue maps.
A press release issued by Luján said that as the outdoor recreation economy grows, this legislation capitalizes on New Mexico’s 21 million acres of rich landscapes.
Luján also said that he enjoys mountain biking himself, and that the bill would make bike trails and outdoor spaces safer and more accessible.