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The final chapter is finally being written to the horror story that started in the summer of 2013 when Gov. Susana Martinez dismantled the state’s mental health system, alleging that all 15 of its private providers were committing fraud.
And, it’s not going to be a happy ending for New Mexico taxpayers.
The state Human Services Department announced last week that it had reached a settlement with three of the companies that sued after having their Medicaid funding frozen by the Martinez administration - Hogares Inc. of Albuquerque; Valencia Counseling Services Inc. of Los Lunas and The Counseling Center of Santa Fe.
The settlement calls for Hogares to be paid $1.81 million, Valencia Counseling Services $301,500 and Valencia $579,500. Those are negotiated compromises, representing only part of what the companies alleged they are owed.
And, it’s just a start. Human Services Secretary David Scrase said they would “continue to work with other behavioral health providers affected by the 2013 New Mexico Medicaid payment freeze.” And so, it may be a little while before we get a final accounting.
But, the mess created by the former governor’s reckless action was evident from the first day. La Frontera, one of five Arizona-based companies awarded no-bid contracts to take over for the local providers, set up shop in Las Cruces without a New Mexico pharmacy license needed to dispense medication.
Less than two years after taking over the local mental health system, La Frontera raised the white flag and beat a hasty retreat back to Arizona.
At about the same time that the switch to Arizona providers was unraveling, so was the rationale used to force that switch. In April 2016 the Attorney General’s Office completed its investigation and found no evidence that any of the 15 agencies had committed fraud.
Instead of accepting those findings, the Martinez administration insisted that allegations made by its outside auditor should trump a three-year investigation by the state’s top attorney. They continued to block payments, leading to the inevitable lawsuits that the new administration is now working to resolve.
Beyond the financial cost to taxpayers, there was the personal cost to vulnerable patients who had critical services disrupted. That disruption is highlighted in the film “The Shake-Up,” which premiered at the Las Cruces Film Festival.
One of the women interviewed for the movie was the foster mother of eight children who all needed medication and therapy. When the only provider in Clayton shut down, she was advised to seek help in Raton, more than 75 miles away, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican. Ralph Moya told the filmmaker that he was the only trained social worker for an area of 11,000 square miles in northeastern New Mexico.
“This decision affected so many New Mexico families,” Scrase said. “We are working diligently on the plan to restore what was taken away.”
Great, but that’s not enough.
I’m glad that providers who were wrongly accused will finally be fully vindicated. But, New Mexico’s mental health care system prior to the 2013 shakeup wasn’t exactly a source of pride or a model for other states to follow.
There has never been a single mental health system covering the entire state. Instead, we have a convoluted network of providers that works OK in some areas, not at all in others. And, our primary mental health provider is still the county jail.
The mess created by Martinez in 2013 was significant, and I don’t blame Scrase for drawing attention to it. But his goal can’t be a return to the past.
He needs to write his own story. A mental health hospital for southern New Mexico would be a good place to start.
Walt Rubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org