Legislators frustrated as behavioral health controversy roils

By Rob Nikolewski on August 21, 2013
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By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

CHAMA – An estimated $36 million in potential fraud is a lot of money but members from both parties in the don’t like what they say is a lack of transparency from the .

As a result, on Wednesday the committee in a 15-1 vote supported an objection to granting $10.35 million to five Arizona behavioral health services that are taking over for 15 providers across the state that saw their Medicaid funding cut off amid allegations of overspending.

AT LOGGERHEADS: The Legislative Finance Committee was drawn into the contentious debate over allegations of fraud in the NM behavioral health system. NM Watchdog photo.

But since the LFC doesn’t have the power to suspend payment (only the Legislature as a whole can do that), Wednesday’s vote doesn’t have any force of law.

“We’re being requested by the (Human Services) department, ‘trust us, we know what we’re doing,’” said Sen. , D-Deming. “Here we are, still working on very limited information … Constituents ask me what’s going on and I say, ‘I don’t know’ … We should certainly have more information than we’ve been provided.”

The clash between protecting the confidentiality of the investigation into the providers and complaints about the lack of details about the audits that allegedly found instances of financial wrongdoing have dominated the conversation ever since the controversy exploded in New Mexico earlier this summer.

“If we don’t run a clean program, the feds are going to take the money away,” said , Secretary of the of the Medicaid funding that goes to thousands of patients in the state’s behavioral health system.

“Given the investigation that is ongoing, we are doing the best we can,” said Human Services Deputy Secretary Brent Earnest, who added that one of the 15 audited providers will see its funding restored and two others will get back online under temporary management.

“What bothers me is the lack of transparency,” said Sen. , D-Grants. “I haven’t seen that on the part of (HSD) and the administration (of ). There’s a lot of rumors and if we had more transparency that wouldn’t be happening. This was handled very bad.”

“We’ve made a mess of these things,” said Rep. , R-Albuquerque.

“If you’re accused of something like these providers have been they should be able to defend themselves,” said Sen. , D-Las Cruces, adding, “I think some have done fraudulent things but I think some have not.”

asked HSD spokesman Matt Kennicott why the department or the don’t just release the audit findings so that the public can see the allegations for itself.

“Releasing any part of the audit could potentially harm the investigation,” Kennicott said.

What about with redactions?

“But my understand is then you’re getting into the details of the what the AG is actually investigating,” Kennicott said, “and you could likely tell who the providers are based on those findings.”

An LFC report insisted that some patients have seen disruptions of service but Earnest said “there’s been no denial of services that we’re aware of” and when asked if any front line employees at providers in question have lost their jobs, Earnest said 88 percent of the agencies’ employees have been hired by the five Arizona firms brought in to pick up the slack.

– who stormed out a contentious hearing – did not attend Wednesday’s meeting. Earnest said she is recovering from eye surgery.

As for the vote, nine Democrats and six Republicans supported the LFC’s objection to transfer $10.35 million to the Arizona firms. The only “no” vote came from .

“The committee can absolutely vote the way they choose,” Kennicott said. “It’s largely a symbolic vote and under statute the (budget adjustment request) will move forward … Thirty-six million dollars is a lot of money. The total behavioral health spend is $350 million. You’re talking about a pretty significant drop in the bucket.”

“We can decide this during the legislative session in January if we need to,” said . “Hopefully, this will be resolved by then.”

Contact Rob Nikolewski at and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

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