Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham: Our leaders must act fast … or step aside

The community is losing faith in two of its most important government institutions: local law enforcement and the agency responsible for the health care of military veterans. I share the same sense of outrage and distrust that I suspect most people are feeling right now. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The key to restoring that faith must come from leadership, not defiance.

The Albuquerque Police Department and the New Mexico VA Health Care system are dealing with much more than public relations problems. As citizens who depend on these institutions, we must insist on a radical change in the culture of both. We also have to show the courage to invest in real solutions, not feel-good proposals.

I had my own experience with the Department of Justice and taking on an entrenched bureaucracy at a long-term care facility. I was reminded of that experience during a recent meeting with DOJ officials in Washington, D.C.

I was shocked to learn that the city hired consultants and they might delay an agreement for as long as a year. Now, the mayor is lowering expectations by suggesting tough oversight by a monitor might be too burdensome and cost the city too much. The mayor needs to own this problem and move aggressively to fix it.

Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham

Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham

That’s exactly what I did as the state’s newly appointed Secretary of Health a decade ago when the DOJ demanded reform of the long-term care at the Fort Bayard Medical Center. I got my administrator’s license and moved to Silver City to personally take over the facility to ensure the safety of its residents.

Since Fort Bayard was a major employer in the region, few people wanted to reform a system if it meant people would lose their jobs. But it had to be done. In fact, I went above and beyond our agreement with the DOJ because more changes were needed to transform the culture so that it focused on quality patient care.

The DOJ commended the Health Department, and specifically my leadership, in resolving the problems at Fort Bayard.

Like APD, the leadership at the VA needs to come clean, admit every mistake that was made and take responsibility. No doubt, the problems at the VA are deep-seated. We’re seeing the result of decades of neglect, bloated bureaucracy, and an over-reliance on data and performance-based bonuses.

However, that doesn’t excuse anyone who has intentionally gamed the VA system and masked the real problems. I know from experience that the VA treats many of the most vulnerable people in our community. That makes it more shameful for anyone to manipulate the care of patients who often don’t have a voice.

There are efforts to address some of the underlying issues both at APD and within the VA system. I believe the lack of treatment for people with mental illness, including veterans suffering from mental illness, is a major problem in our community.

That’s why I successfully introduced a measure in Congress, which passed the House, to invest $2 million in the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act programs. This funding would directly address one of the DOJ’s recommendations for APD to improve its response to individuals in behavioral or mental health crisis and require all officers to participate in crisis intervention training.

I applaud the City Council for quickly proposing an investment in mental health programs. But again, the mayor is resisting reform and suggesting a wait-and-see attitude. That’s what got us into this situation in the first place.

I’m prepared to work with anyone who wants to truly reform the culture at these important institutions. Ultimately, the leaders of the Albuquerque Police Department and the New Mexico VA are going to have to make tough decisions in order to move forward and win back the faith of their respective constituencies.

I urge those leaders to make bold decisions quickly, or step aside to allow that reform to take place.

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Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham represents New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District.

Reposted from the Albuerque Journal. June 11, 2014