University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque (Photo by Shelby Wyatt for Source NM)
New Mexico’s flagship hospital is expected this summer to begin sending its staff to treat people incarcerated while awaiting trial in the state’s largest jail.
An advisory panel for the Metropolitan Detention Center in Bernalillo County on Wednesday night endorsed a proposal to no longer rely on private companies to provide health care, and instead partner with the University of New Mexico Hospital as part of an effort to provide adequate medical treatment to people held inside.
According to Bernalillo County officials, the work with UNM Hospital will help the local government comply with its obligations under the settlement agreement and court orders in McClendon v. Albuquerque, the decades-long class action lawsuit against the jail and the police who take people there.
The county’s Detention Center Advisory Board voted on Wednesday to endorse a Joint Powers Agreement, which states Bernalillo County and the hospital “desire to work together” to achieve “substantial compliance” with the mental health and medical aspects of the settlement in McClendon.
Before the vote, Bernalillo County Attorney Ken Martinez told the advisory board that the way medical treatment will be given to people in the jail is changing from private to public.
“Not trying to speak bad about private business, nonprofits, or anything like that but this is two governments working together to provide essentially government services, treatment of folks that are in jail, and make sure it’s done well,” Martinez told the Board at their regular meeting.
Unlike the government, Martinez said, a privately run medical provider must keep their shareholders happy.
“I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but there’s unique challenges in that,” Martinez said. “Those won’t be the same challenges and focuses that will be between two governments whose duty, really, is to care for its citizens.”
The UNM Board of Regents and the Bernalillo County Board of Commissioners each voted to approve the partnership in April.
The Joint Powers Agreement, if it becomes final, would create the Metropolitan Detention Center Health Care Authority, whose purpose would be to “co-manage” mental health and medical treatment at the jail.
The MDC Health Care Authority would be governed by a newly created six-member board, with equal membership from the hospital and the county.
The Joint Powers Agreement requires the approval of the cabinet secretary of the Department of Finance and Administration, Martinez said.
“It’s ready for signature,” he said.
DFA Secretary Wayne Propst did not respond to an email seeking comment on Thursday.
Parrish Collins, a civil rights attorney who represents four clients involving the local jail and numerous others held in state prisons, reviewed the Joint Powers Agreement on Thursday.
He said all medical personnel should go through a “vigorous rehiring process.”
“Guards and other county personnel must have a duty to report clear medical concerns,” Parrish said. “Otherwise, UNM will end up facing lawsuits regarding matters over which they had no knowledge.”
There is not yet a contract to determine how much Bernalillo county will pay UNM Hospital for the treatment. The Joint Powers Agreement states the amount will come from “a separately negotiated services agreement.”
Martinez said county officials started negotiations with UNM “from the last amount we were paying the current provider, and work from there,” Martinez said. The county’s contract with YesCare totaled $64.8 million
“I think that’s a very fair way to start,” Martinez said.
U.S. District Court Judge James Browning on Jan. 17 approved a settlement agreement between the plaintiffs in McClendon and Bernalillo County which says experts appointed by the court will come up with plans to improve specialty care, sick calls and intake screening for people experiencing mental illness who are held in the jail.
The settlement agreement requires the plans to include a process for prompt assessment of people experiencing mental illness who may need a higher level of care, and for jail officials to work with local mental health care providers including UNM Hospital.
“It is extremely important that UNM gets all the support it needs,” Parrish said. “This needs to be successful. Failure cannot be an option.”
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