New Mexico joins two-year program to help those in need with health, housing

Mar. 20—The concept health and housing are linked isn't anything new — especially for those struggling with both.

A national program New Mexico will be participating in over the next two years should help leaders take understanding of that idea to the next level.

New Mexico is one of four states to participate in the National Academy for State Health Policy's two-year Health and Housing Institute program. A team of state officials will work alongside their peers from other states to develop data-driven strategies and put into practice health and housing programs, said Alex Castillo Smith, deputy secretary of the New Mexico Human Services Department.

"The state of New Mexico is just really committed to figuring out how we can provide better quality, better accessibility to housing to New Mexicans," she said. "I think there's a lot of ways we can be more creative about it."

That could mean things like Medicaid getting more involved in efforts to curb homelessness and housing instability, Castillo Smith said.

"Several other states already have some sort of housing supports in their Medicaid program," she said.

According to the National Academy for State Health Policy, projects that have come out of the two-year program include:

* One state's housing finance authority producing a list of available and soon-to-be available affordable rental units that can be used to house young people aging out of foster care or people with serious mental illnesses transitioning out of state group facilities.

* One state working to understand how to use Medicaid managed care organization contracts to cover housing-related services.

* One state's team completing a geographic-specific needs and assets map to help with planning for other projects.

The initiative could also build on other efforts the state is making to give more people access to housing, Castillo Smith said. For example, the state's $5.6 million Linkages Supportive Housing Program, launched 17 years ago, pays for housing for homeless adults who are diagnosed with serious mental illness and are also functionally impaired. And New Mexico's Medicaid program is preparing to launch a $16.4 million, five-year pilot program to offer respite housing to homeless people when they're recovering from a hospital stay. That program is seeking federal approval.

The program is open to applications from all states, but the slots are limited. Going through the program with three other states — Connecticut, New Jersey and Oregon — will also offer valuable ideas and points of comparison, Castillo Smith said.

New Mexico's team for the program will include state officials involved in Medicaid, housing, behavioral health, aging, disabilities, public health and the prison system, along with the Governor's Office, the Human Services Department wrote in a news release announcing the initiative.

The team's kickoff meeting is in early April, which Castillo said is when the team will work with the National Academy for State Health Policy to identify its goals.

"What I'm really looking forward to is meeting the people across state government who can help us tackle these things," Castillo Smith said.