ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico is seeing soaring numbers of deadly overdoses from fentanyl and methamphetamine and alcohol-related deaths reached an all-time high in 2020 despite the state tripling spending on treatment over the last several years, according to a report presented to state lawmakers Thursday.
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Preliminary figures show that fentanyl-related deaths alone increased by 129% between 2019 and 2020, legislative analysts said. That percentage is expected to climb even higher when final totals for the last year are calculated.
The trend mirrors what has been happening nationally. Drug overdose deaths in the United States rose nearly 30% in 2020 to a record 93,000, according to statistics released by federal health officials. That marked the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period in the U.S.
The report says the pandemic contributed to the surge of overdose deaths in New Mexico by disrupting outreach to treatment and increased social isolation. It also noted that the lingering pandemic has highlighted the need for behavioral health care given the high levels of grief, isolation, unemployment and anxiety that many people have been experiencing.
The report was presented to members of the Legislative Finance Committee, a key panel that sets the state’s spending priorities and crafts the budget each year.
Cally Carswell, a program evaluator with the committee, outlined some of the grim statistics for lawmakers. More than 43,000 New Mexicans have died from alcohol and drug overdoses in the last three decades. The deaths in a single year reached their highest point yet in 2020, with 1,770 alcohol-related deaths and 766 overdose deaths.
While New Mexico has long had some of the highest death rates from such causes, Carswell said the nature of the drug epidemic has shifted.
Fentanyl and meth have surpassed heroin and prescription opioids as the leading causes of overdose deaths in the state. In fact, the two drugs were involved in 78% of overdose deaths in 2020.
“This is important because the details of the problem should inform the solutions,” she said.
She noted that some of the state’s harm-reduction programs don’t have the flexibility to address fentanyl and meth due to outdated statutes that focus only intravenous drug use and restrict the distribution of test strips that could help identify whether fentanyl has been cut into other drugs.
The New Mexico Human Services Department spent at least $147 million in state and Medicaid funds last year to provide core treatment services to people with a substance use disorder. That’s more than triple the $45.6 million spent in 2014. The number of services also increased by 85% over the same period, with more than 60,700 patients receiving some kind of treatment last year.
While New Mexico has increased provider rates and made other changes to bolster the state’s behavioral health safety net, officials said treatment is only part of the equation. They pointed to the need for more prevention and early intervention programs that can tackle the underlying causes of substance abuse, including poverty and childhood trauma.
According to the report, an estimated 134,000 New Mexicans are living with a substance use disorder and receiving no treatment.
The report also states more work needs to be done to improve the quality of behavioral health care, boost access, increase financial incentives, and build a workforce that better represents the state’s cultural and racial demographics.
Lawrence Medina, executive director of the Rio Grande Alcoholism Treatment Program in Taos, told lawmakers about efforts there to reopen a detox center and eventually a residential treatment center. He said people are falling through the cracks and land either in jail or the hospital.
He called for gaps in recovery options to be closed, saying he himself was a client of the treatment program 30 years ago. “Recovery is alive and well,” he said.