SANTA FE – A nonprofit group that advocates for the rights of people with mental illness is suing the New Mexico Department of Health and Cabinet Secretary K. Lynn Gallagher for failure to enforce rules and regulations pertaining to the oversight of boarding homes.
Patients who leave the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute in Las Vegas, N.M., often end up in substandard local boarding houses.
Disability Rights of New Mexico, a nonprofit group with offices in Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Las Vegas, N.M., claims in the state court lawsuit filed Monday that DOH is shirking its responsibilities, which “poses a dire public health and safety risk to some of the state’s most vulnerable populations.”
The group is asking a judge to issue an order requiring DOH to begin enforcing provisions of the state Public Health Act on boarding homes or show cause why not.
“The state has taken no responsibility in enforcing those,” said James Jackson, Disability Rights New Mexico’s CEO. “We’re hoping that the judge will get them to begin the process immediately.”
The lawsuit refers to ongoing boarding home problems in Las Vegas, N.M., including a case where two men who had been patients at the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute died of carbon monoxide poisoning in 2013 after moving into a storage shed rented out as living space.
Disability Rights visited multiple boarding homes in Las Vegas and Albuquerque, and found “a multitude of egregious residential conditions,” including overcrowding – with as many as 20 people sharing a bathroom – mattresses on the floor, inadequate or dangerous heating and air-conditioning, and filthy kitchens and bathrooms.
A DOH spokesman wouldn’t comment on the suit, but provided a statement that said, “The New Mexico Department of Health takes seriously its role to ensure quality health care for the state’s most vulnerable. We will continue to work with state lawmakers and other agencies to address these challenges.”
Jackson said legislation to make it clear DOH should regulate boarding homes was vetoed last year by Gov. Susana Martinez. The bill came on the heels of a Journal investigation that revealed poor living conditions in some Las Vegas boarding homes,
The lawsuit states that people with mental illness often end up in unregulated boarding homes after being released from the Behavioral Health Institute and other mental health care facilities. They are often at risk of abuse, neglect or exploitation, the suit states.
The lawsuit alleges that since 2014, DOH has taken the stance that it regulates boarding homes only to the extent that they meet the definition of “assisted living facility.”
But Disability Rights says DOH has a responsibility to provide oversight of boarding homes under the Public Health Act’s definition of “health facility.” The suit says that the definition for a health facility under state law includes any “boarding home not under the control of an institute of higher learning.”