Many New Mexicans – mostly people with low incomes – had their treatments for substance abuse or mental health issues disrupted after the 2013 behavioral health shake-up.
The controversy was the impetus for Albuquerque native Ben Altenberg’s latest documentary, “The Shake-Up.” It will premiere at 9 p.m. today on New Mexico PBS.
In 2013, during the administration of then-Gov. Susana Martinez, the Human Services Department cut off Medicaid payments to 15 mental health providers after an audit by an outside company found credible evidence of fraud.
The providers were replaced by five Arizona companies hired on no-bid emergency contracts.
Meanwhile, some of the New Mexico-based providers were forced to close, resulting in hundreds of job losses in the sector.
In April 2016, Attorney General Hector Balderas cleared the last of the 15 behavioral health nonprofits of Medicaid fraud.
“It turned out to be far more complex than we had initially thought,” Altenberg said. “It was so shocking to hear that this was happening. Anybody that I tell this story to, they are astounded.”
Altenberg, now living in Austin, Texas, created a documentary that tells a story from multiple points of view.
Before working on the documentary, he spent several years working as a videographer for various public health and education nonprofits in New Mexico, producing public service announcements, educational videos, and promotional videos for small businesses in need.
In 2016, he co-founded a production company, Readily Apparent Media.
Altenberg traveled to several New Mexico communities, including Albuquerque, Clayton, Santa Fe and Santa Rosa, for interviews.
Featured in the documentary are government officials, mental health professionals and patients who were affected.
Once Altenberg and crew began to interview people, the documentary’s focus became clear.
“The folks whose lives were impacted, we had to get their stories to the forefront,” he said. “Once we met them, it was rather easy. Having that opportunity to meet with them.”
When the providers were contacted, Altenberg said, they were inclined to help.
“There are still some that are so angry about it,” he said. “It was fairly easy to have them come in for an interview. They discussed the issue from their point of view. That’s what I wanted to capture, different points of view telling one complete story.”
Ralph Moya, a retired clinical social worker, is featured in the documentary.
Moya treats patients in Tucumcari, Clayton, Santa Rosa and Vaughn – all without getting a paycheck.
“I have practiced in medical clinics and worked with providers, and I have never left my roots and dedicated my life to social work,” Moya said in the documentary. “After the dismantling of mental health in New Mexico, I decided to help out the areas lacking in services.”
Moya volunteers 60 to 70 hours a week, traveling hundreds of miles each week.
“We’re short on therapists, and that’s how I wound up here,” Moya said. “Mental health is my passion, and I’ll be here forever or until they don’t need me.”
Moya, who has been practicing since 1979, said he’s been providing services to several families for four generations.
“When the services were taken away from the rural areas, I think the state didn’t do careful planning,” Moya said.
Altenberg’s journey with the film has taken him to various film festivals.
With the PBS airing, he’s excited to get more eyes on the film because the subject is so complex.
“I was out in Carlsbad showing the film, and it was amazing because the whole community was there to see this film that is tackling the issues,” Altenberg said. “It’s so empowering to have this project and it has a goal of serving the community.”