By David Dallago, former chairman, McKinley County Commission.
McKinley County, New Mexico, is the namesake of the assassinated 25 U.S. President William McKinley. Many locals, particularly those Native Americans of Navajo decent living on reservations, have also been the victim of assassination, but in character in addition to physical attacks. Three decades ago Gallup, New Mexico, which borders on the Navajo Reservation, was known as “Drunk Town, USA.”
For many years Northwest New Mexico’s Gallup ranked number one nationally in the number of alcohol-related deaths. This reputation also killed many resident’s spirits, contributing to addiction, joblessness and homelessness, further highlighting the need for behavioral health care in this region. Native American youth have the highest rates of alcoholism of any racial group in the country, according to the National Institutes of Health.
McKinley County Is One of Poorest in U.S.
There are many stories like this. Addiction’s partner is the adjunct poverty of McKinley County, one of the poorest counties in the U.S. In Gallup there is a large population of Navajo and Na’nizhoozhi Indians. It is the most populous city in the county with 22,670 residents and is situated between Albuquerque and Flagstaff with 61 percent living below the federal poverty line and unemployment at 8.4 percent.
The Indian Health Service (IHS), an operating division within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is the principal federal health care provider for Indians. Its mission is to raise their health status to the highest possible level. However, there are still issues such as the life expectancy for Indians being approximately 4.5 years less than the general population of the United States, 73.7 years versus 78.1 years.
Data from a 2014 National Emergency Department Inventory survey also showed that only 85% of the 34 IHS respondents had continuous physician coverage. Of these 34 sites surveyed, only four sites utilized telemedicine while a median of just 13 percent of physicians were board certified in emergency medicine. Another behavioral health related disease afflicting the territory is diabetes. In 2016, diabetes was the sixth leading cause of death for New Mexicans and the seventh leading cause in the U.S.
RMCHCS Hospital Fights Addiction with Behavioral Health Apps
Despite the drumbeat of bad news and discouraging statistics, organizations such as Gallup’s Na’ Nihzhoozhi Center Inc.’s (NCI) has 26,000 admissions every year and is the nation’s busiest treatment center with many repeat customers. The detox center was the result of an effort 30 years ago which began when more than 5,000 people marched from Gallup to Santa Fe to demand assistance from state lawmakers and received a $400,000 for a study to build a detoxification center. The hospital then received two-million-dollar ongoing yearly federal grant out of which NCI was born.
The leader of that effort in the ’80s and ’90s was David Conejo who returned in 2014 as the CEO of Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services (RMCHCS) where he leads the fight against addiction with traditional tactics, but also behavioral healthcare innovations that have captured the attention of the healthcare industry.
Turing the Tables on Addiction
When he became CEO of RMCHS a few years ago, he took a financially failing hospital and turned it around with the help of William Kiefer, Ph. D who is the hospital’s chief operating officer. Recognizing the root cause of the region’s health problem was addiction, Conejo revitalized a former rehab building on the hospital’s grounds and with some fundraising he launched the Behavioral Health Treatment Center.
The center is operated by Ophelia Reeder, a long-time healthcare advocate for the Navajo Nation and a board member of the Gallup Indian Medical Center. Bill Camorata, a former addict, is the behavioral special projects director. He opened “Bill’s Place,” an outdoor facility where he and hospital volunteers treated the homeless with meals, clothing and medical triage as part of Gallup’s Immediate Action Group that he founded and serves as president. The center has treated more than 200 addicted residents since the center opened in 2015 and has a staff of 30 who manage resident’s case work, provide behavioral health services and are certified in peer support.