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Attorney sees UNMH taking over care at the Bernalillo County jail as a hopeful sign

Bernalillo County

Peter Cubra has been advocating for the rights of incarcerated people in New Mexico since the 1980s. Now the retired Albuquerque attorney is sounding a note of optimism as University of New Mexico hospital takes over the medical services contract at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center. Cubra spoke with New Mexico In Focus Executive Producer Jeff Proctor about why it's a welcome change from private companies that have repeatedly failed to care for people who are locked up. More than 20 people have died in the jail since 2020, many of whom are detoxing.

PETER CUBRA: The two big things that I've noticed since the Corizon Corporation was brought in in October of 2021, is that this corporation did not follow any of the patterns that we had established there that were working. They made longtime employees start to do every kind of nursing across the board in a way that they weren't skilled to do. And so there was ineptitude among the staff in a way we didn't see before. Almost half of the positions that were authorized and required by the federal court order in the McClendon case they never filled in the almost two years that they were there. And so with all of those vacancies, the custody staff frequently didn't get people to the appointments that they needed. So for people with chronic problems, who didn't die in the first couple of days, it was often the case that they were never taken to the medical appointments that they had scheduled, because there was no one to just walk them down the hall to get him to the clinic.

NMPBS: Just last week, UNM hospital took over that medical services contract. It's a four-year contract $20 million a year, it creates a new government entity called the MDC Health Care Authority. For as long as I have known you, you have advocated for a setup like that. Why?

CUBRA: In 1995, some other lawyers and I sued the jail because of how people with intellectual disabilities and psychiatric conditions were being mistreated, abused and neglected inside the old jail downtown. And as a result of that McClendon case, we worked with the city, which was then administering the jail. And they negotiated with the University in New Mexico and UNM Psychiatric Center began, when we settled that case in 1996, to be the provider of psychiatric care and mental health services. And then in the next couple of years, they became the provider of all health care. Through 2003, UNM was running the operation, and we were seeing marked improvement. And when the county decided to put out a request for proposals and let any vendor offer to do it, then these corporations, as they do, they come like sharks, and they say, “I'll do it. I'll do it for less.” And they promise to follow the orders in the McClendon case. They never do. They knowingly are bidding at a number that is not realistic to comply with the court orders or with good standard practice either. And then these corporations have, you know, profited as much as they could, reduce care as much as they could get away with, pocketed the money and then move on. And then we've repeated that cycle, ever since 2003.

NMPBS: Will this new entity necessarily usher in more transparency, more accountability, and most importantly, better care for the people who are incarcerated there?

CUBRA: That hangs in the balance right this minute, because this health authority I fully support. This is the best development I've seen in decades with respect to our jail system. But it's only conceptually so because UNM stepped up and their leaders decided that they were going to do this because one, it was the right thing. It would save lives of their patients who they serve before jail. They serve after jail. Now they're going to serve them continuously. And so they did that courageously, but they also did it at great risk. The contract that they signed, or I guess it's now called a joint powers agreement between UNM and the county, it says that the county is only going to pay the same inadequate amount of money they've been paying for the private company -- until they negotiate something else. The county stopped giving decent care to save money. The county for years kept paying too little to save money. And now the county has to either pay an adequate amount, or even UNM can't rescue the situation. Now, I want to say there's really an easy answer to that. Back in 2015, when the county created the Behavioral Health Initiative, there's a lot of new dollars. I think we're around $29 million generated annually through the Behavioral Health Initiative. And I and another advocate started saying in 2016, let's move match those local dollars with the Medicaid program. So for every dollar that we get from the county we'll get three and a half dollars from the federal government through the Medicaid program. To this day, the county's never done it.

This interview ran on New Mexico in Focus on New Mexico PBS. You can see the full interview here.

This story has been corrected to correct the spelling of Peter Cubra's last name.

Megan has been a journalist for 25 years and worked at business weeklies in San Antonio, New Orleans and Albuquerque. She first came to KUNM as a phone volunteer on the pledge drive in 2005. That led to volunteering on Women’s Focus, Weekend Edition and the Global Music Show. She was then hired as Morning Edition host in 2015, then the All Things Considered host in 2018. Megan was hired as News Director in 2021.
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