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Several community leaders met over a Zoom call on Tuesday (Sept. 28) to discuss the ongoing gaps in treatment for substance abuse in Taos County.

It's no secret that Taos is in need of an overhaul of its substance abuse recovery services.

According to the New Mexico Department of Health, early numbers indicate a greater than 129-percent increase in fentanyl overdoses from 2019 to 2020. From 2018 to 2019, the DOH saw a 93-percent increase.

"We started seeing rises even before the COVID [pandemic] and it keeps on rising," Dr. Robert Kelly, a NMDOH epidemiologist told the Taos News in July.

That's why a group of local politicians, concerned citizens, and substance abuse recovery experts met on Tuesday (Sept. 28) for a Taos County SUD (Substance Use Disorder) town hall meeting.

The meeting was attended by several community members, including Steve Fuhlendorf, Lawrence Medina, John Hutchinson, Sun Vega, Ted Wiard, AnJanette Brush, Darlene Vigil, Kristina Ortez, Pascualito Maestas, Neal Bowen, Zach Cordova, Bryce Pittenger and Candyce O'Donnell. After a group prayer, Fuhlendorf kicked off the discussion by explaining that gaps in recovery services are a major problem in Taos, along with an ongoing stigma surrounding addiction.

Fuhlendorf said it is imperative to recognize addiction as a disease "and not as a moral failure or any of the other things we associate with recovery from substance use disorder."

Lawrence Medina, executive director of the Rio Grande Alcoholism Treatment Program (ATP), spoke about his efforts to reopen a detox center in Taos, a venture he has partnered with Fuhlendorf on. Beyond that first step in treatment, he said Taos County also needs a residential (or long-term) treatment facility and methadone services.

"We have been picking up the pieces since the detox center closed in 2015, but despite the challenges we are moving towards solutions," said Medina.

Currently, Rio Grande ATP is waiting for the town and county to formalize a contract that will exchange the county's old Ancianos Senior Center building with the town's old detox center, which has been used throughout the pandemic as a COVID-19 overflow unit. Fuhlendorf said in a phone call that they are currently waiting for the town and county attorneys to "get the legalities taken care of so that they can swap the buildings." When that happens, Fuhlendorf said they will hit the ground running.

"We're very anxious to have the transaction completed so that we can we can move forward," he said. "We want to get those doors open as soon as we can." Rio Grande ATP has a contract with the county to run the new detox center.

Dr. Neal Bowen, director of the State of New Mexico Behavioral Health Services Division, also spoke about the state's efforts to address the epidemic of drug addiction. One major aspect of New Mexico's efforts is a grant the state recently received that will allow for matching federal assistance in funding mobile recovery units to address addiction issues in rural areas.

Town Councilor Pascualito Maestas spoke next about the town of Taos's efforts to address substance abuse issues. Though Maestas's focus was on supporting any projects that address the problem, he did point out the close link between the economy and tackling addiction in communities.

"Recovery from substances is economic development," he said. "For every dollar spent on recovery, that's a dollar diverted away from substances and helping to bring back our labor force."

According to the New Mexico Indicator-Based Information System, in 2019, $890 million was spent on prescription opioid abuse, misuse, and dependence in the state.

Next, Mrs. Sun Vega from TeamBuilders Behavioral Health Services spoke about the organization's partnership with Taos and what their efforts will look like going forward.

John Hutchinson, a pharmacist at Holy Cross Medical Center, came on next to speak about medication-assisted recovery, which is a field that addresses methadone treatment for opioid addiction and analyzes the effects of prescription drug addiction in communities.

Bryce Pittenger, chief executive officer of the Behavioral Health Consortium, followed Hutchinson and spoke about the BHC's work in restoring the system of care in Taos. Using a four-pronged approach, BHC plans to help with expanding the workforce, increase the infrastructure, assisting with medical-assisted recovery and advancing social equity.

Though solid future plans were not discussed at the meeting, the attendees did make plans to meet in the future to analyze data around successful recovery program strategies and identify areas of need. The meeting concluded with the understanding that addressing the drug epidemic in Taos and the surrounding areas will require the assistance and efforts of all entities at the local and state levels.

Will Hooper contributed to this report.

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