ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – City leaders, federal legislators, and county officials have all come together on a project for Albuquerque: a medical sobering center. Part of the Gibson Health Hub, the center is supposed to be more than just a detox clinic – it’s supposed to help alleviate pressure on emergency rooms, keep people out of jail, and support the community.
“We’re [going to be] a safe place for sobering, hopefully, do medical oversight, reduce the impact of potential overdose,” Gilbert Ramirez, the Behavioral Health and Wellness deputy director for the City of Albuquerque, says. “We would have capacity to serve just under 18,000 individuals yearly.”
The project began with a feasibility study. Released in fall of 2021, the study concluded that the city needs a sobering center: “Simply put, there is growing need in the Albuquerque community to address emergency response for individuals who are under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol and who are without other acute medical need,” the report says.
From there, lawmakers approved funding. The Bernalillo County Commission approved $4.35 million in 2022 for the sobering center. Only one member of the Commission, Charlene Pyskoty (now a former commissioner), dissented in the vote. Some were more positive towards the project.
“Addiction has impacted our New Mexican families and communities for generations,” County Commission Chair Adrian Barboa, said in a 2022 press release. “Countless medical professionals have spoken to me about the need for medical sobering and I am proud that Bernalillo County will be part of this much-needed resource.” Federal funds add to the project. Congresswoman Melanie Stansbury announced $2.2 million for the center, and Senator Martin Heinrich announced additional funds for the project.
Now, Ramirez says that construction on the project could begin in March of this year. If so, services could be offered as soon as the end of the Summer.
The facility would take adults with Substance Use Disorder who are picked up by responders such as Albuquerque Community Safety or Albuquerque Fire Rescue. Currently, many of those picked up are taken to local hospitals or even jail.
“We took a deep dive into like three years of data,” Ramirez says. “And what we saw was roughly 43,000 calls, over 2018 to 2020, for substance-use-related situations. And they were all being diverted to emergency departments whether it was Presbyterian or UNM or another partner.”
“It’s very costly for our folks to be taking individuals to the hospital,” Ramirez says. “So, we’re excited that we will be able to defer some of those impacts.”
While some of the exact protocol details still need to be hammered out (such as how to decide if an individual needs medical care at a hospital versus care at the sobering center), Ramirez notes that other states do have functioning sobering centers. And they can provide a model, Ramirez says.
“We’ve been in touch with the National Sobering Center Collaborative as a consultant,” Ramirez says. “They’ve done a lot of championing and advocacy for 30 medical sobering centers around the nation.”
As Albuquerque looks to others for an example of how this might work, Ramirez notes that the sobering center will only serve adults when it first opens. “It’s 18-and-older individuals who can consent to their care and be able to be brought in,” Ramirez says. “Gender [is] not an issue. We can serve everyone and anyone who would like it, and of course it’s voluntary. We’re not forcing anyone to come here, but it’s a real alternative to saying, ‘Do you wish to be taken to a hospital?'”