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Transition begins in N.M. behavioral care

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Arizona firm replaces provider in Las Cruces

SANTA FE – The first of the New Mexico behavioral health nonprofits to be taken over by an Arizona provider contracted by the Human Services Department was closing up shop on Friday after a 50-year run.

Southwest Counseling Center in Las Cruces will be replaced as of Monday by La Frontera, which is leasing the buildings currently occupied by Southwest and will treat Southwest’s clients at the same sites.

“We’re basically moving everything out as of today,” said Southwest CEO Roque Garcia, who has been forced out as the head of the agency.

Garcia said about 120 people worked for Southwest; 96 of those had been hired back by La Frontera as of Friday, according to HSD spokesman Matt Kennicott.

La Frontera is scheduled to see clients Monday, Kennicott said.

“They should have uninterrupted access to their services,” he said.

Computers, files and other records were headed to storage; the information has to be kept because the nonprofit, along with 14 others, is under investigation by the office of Attorney General Gary King.

Fifteen behavioral health providers in the state had their Medicaid funding for treating the mentally ill and substance abusers frozen by HSD nearly five weeks ago.

The behavioral health funding has been restored to just one provider since then; two others have had Medicaid funding that is not related to behavioral health restored.

The HSD said a special audit done by a Boston firm showed overbilling, mismanagement and possible fraud among the 15 providers audited. The findings for all 15 were turned over to the attorney general’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit to investigate. They also were given to the FBI and the U.S. attorney.

The HSD, citing a request from the attorney general, has not released the full audits, prompting complaints from the providers, some lawmakers and an open government group.

“You could see this happening in a Third World country. It’s just hard to believe there’s been no due process,” Garcia said.

Southwest and seven other providers made an emergency request of a federal judge to have their funding resumed and be afforded “name-clearing” hearings, but that was rejected on Thursday. The judge said the groups had not met the legal requirement for obtaining a temporary restraining order: establishing that their arguments would prevail in their lawsuit.

The HSD has said it could pay up to $18 million to five Arizona behavioral health companies to provide transitional services, ranging from technical assistance to full-out management of the New Mexico nonprofits. Funds are being shifted within the agency for the additional spending.

The $4.75 million contract with La Frontera provides for hourly pay rates for its top officials for the next 90 days that include $300 an hour for an executive director, $275 an hour for a chief operations officer and a chief financial officer, and $250 an hour for a manager.

After 90 days – and perhaps before then – La Frontera should be fully billing Medicaid and those transitional pay rates will expire, according to HSD’s Kennicott.

The pay rates came in for criticism by some lawmakers who said they were excessive.

“Three hundred bucks an hour for the CEO? You could say you worked 80 hours a week,” objected Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, who first raised the issue at a legislative interim meeting on Thursday.

A pay rate of $300 an hour for 40 hours a week would be equivalent to more than $600,000 a year. Garcia said he was paid $85,000 annually by Southwest, and made another $25,000 as part-time head of Rio Grande Behavioral Health Services, which provided billing, accounting, information technology and other services to Southwest and other providers.

Garcia, who has been CEO at Southwest for three years and worked before that for other behavioral health providers, said Southwest was the state’s first community mental health program.

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