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Health Department Transition Is Welcomed

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I spoke with Dr. Catherine Torres in July 2011, six months after she had taken the helm of the state Department of Health and had, in that short time, made plenty of enemies among her staff and those who serve and are serviced by her massive agency.

Twenty-one months since accepting the $122,500-a-year job, she is giving it back, surprising nearly no one and pleasing those who had called, begged or prayed for her termination.

“Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead,” was the stinging headline at the New Mexico Department of Health in Crisis, a blog maintained by anonymous and aggrieved DOH employees, when word spread last Monday that Torres had tendered her resignation.

Torres’ reasons for her departure, effective a week from today, involve the death of her mother earlier this summer and a “heartfelt desire” to spend time with her family.

Folks I spoke with didn’t care why she left, only that she had.

“I would say that everyone is pleased because we all blame her for most of the problems with the new waiver, the rates and how it is being implemented,” said disability rights advocate Fritzi Hardy of Albuquerque, referring to the redesign of the waiver program run by the department’s Developmental Disabilities Supports Division — an effort seen by many advocates and families as a colossal mess.

Others decried what they said was her dallying in developing the state’s medical cannabis program; her slowness in renewing contracts to crucial health programs and providers; her disbanding of the state autism task force; her failure to fill crucial positions (DOH currently has 752 vacancies); and her near-obsession with redesigning the DOH logo.

I had asked Torres back then whether she thought she was in over her head, whether a pediatrician from Las Cruces — Gov. Susana Martinez territory — whose only previous administrative duties had been as the medical director of a small nonprofit health care agency was qualified to take on an already ailing department of 3,938 full-time employees (that number is now down to 3,194), hundreds of contracts and provider agreements and thousands of residents and agencies from the severely mentally ill to state lab workers.

Torres was resolute.

“You have to have the skills to be a leader,” she responded. “You have to have organization skills. You have to understand how the department works.”

She added: “I am a very action-oriented person. I move things forward.”

But 15 months after we spoke, I’m still not sure what she moved other than many constituents to tears or rage.

“I was advised by a DOH employee to take my concerns about her to the Governor’s Office because she was so out of control that perhaps if stakeholders complained that they could let her go,” said Gay Finlayson of Albuquerque, an advocate for people with autism. “She dominated an important planning meeting talking about things she didn’t have a grasp of so that we didn’t get to any substance. She also hijacked a presentation done by a co-worker and was full of misinformation.”

Acrimony is even stronger among some DOH staff members, who complained that Torres had run off too many talented employees frustrated with what they called her ineffectual and often tyrannical leadership, misguided priorities and retaliatory style of management.

“I can honestly say the morale is the worst it’s ever been,” said Donald Alire, president of the Communications Workers of America Local 7076, which this summer launched a petition asking the governor to replace Torres. The union represents about a quarter of DOH’s workforce.

Although the petition was never submitted, Alire said he believes it served its purpose.

“I won’t say we are taking credit for Torres’ resignation, but perhaps we did some good,” he said.

Torres declined to speak to me this time around, with DOH spokesman Kenny Vigil saying that her focus is on working with the Governor’s Office to ensure a smooth transition.

Meanwhile, Chief Deputy Brad McGrath will serve as interim secretary. McGrath, hired last October as DOH chief facilities officer, is a lawyer who specialized in human resources and labor relations before assuming several hospital administrative jobs, including at Eastern New Mexico Medical Center in Roswell, Memorial Medical Center in Las Cruces and Carlsbad Medical Center, among others.

His impressive résumé makes Torres’ hiring seem all the more troubling since she lacked comparable skill, temperament and experience from the start.

Gov. Martinez gets another crack at hiring the better person for the DOH job. It’s time for the healing to begin.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline Gutierrez Krueger at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/ letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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