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MHMR Funding Agreement Reached

POSTED: Thursday, September 10, 2009 - 7:00am

UPDATED: Wednesday, February 17, 2010 - 3:24pm

EL PASO---A mental health clinic will be getting the funding it needs to keep 1,500 patients on their meds, and off of a waiting list, for now.
All, after a heated debate in the County Commissioner's court.

"Having waiting lists, not taking new clients, will be a death sentence for people like me," said 55-year-old Lawrence Harley to a roaring crowd at the El Paso County Commissioner's Court.

He was was just one of hundreds of concerned El Pasoans who crammed in to support the Mental Health Mental Retardation clinic of El Paso.

MHMR, a state-funded mental health clinic, gives Harley and about 4,500 patients free meds in El Paso. For Harley, it's what saved him from suicide.

But 1,500 of those patients, including 300 children, were at risk of being put on a wait list for their meds because of funding shortages from the state.

In a four-to-one vote, all commissioners except Willie Gandara, voted to finance MHMR for $1.8 million dollars over 12 months.

In return, MHMR must sign a contract promising to take the 1,500 people off the waiting list.

The five-hour-long debate towards the agreement was a heated one.

"We need to do something now to avoid this wait list at the end of September," said Judge Anthony Cobos, who, because of the pressing deadline, proposed the county should put pressure on University Medical Center leaders to help out.

UMC currently has $120 million in reserves. MHMR only needed $2.2 million to care for those 1,500 patients.

The argument posed? If patients don't receive meds, they could end up in the emergency rooms of local hospitals, like UMC, said Cobos.

"It's very unfair to ask the hospital because we have a healthy reserve, to pay 2.2 million dollars," said former commissioner and current UMC trustee, Barbara Perez.

Commissioner Willie Gandara, the only one to vote against the agreement, also argued with Commissioner Dan Haggerty over the hospital's responsibility in supporting MHMR.

"You are a business owner like myself. And if I'm going to give somebody $2 million, I'm going to know why I'm giving them $2 million," said Gandara.

Haggerty simply replied, "Here's why Willie. Because no one else will."

Patients just pleaded with commissioners when the debates became heated.

"Get it done, because we're not talking money here, we're talking lives," said Harley.

In the end, UMC did decide to chip in $500,000 on top of the county's $1.8 million, covering the clinic's needs for this fiscal year.

But it's not a long-term solution, said Commissioner Veronica Escobar.
She says more pressure needs to be put on State legislators.

"Funding formulas in Austin harm El Paso. Not just mental health, but health care, education across the board," she said. "Formula funding helps communities with large populations. It doesn't do anything for communities that have a high percentage of uninsured."

Escobar said the county should put more pressure on lobbyists in the state capitol, because the County can't afford to keep MHMR's funding up in the future.

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