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N.M. behavioral health services are interrupted

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Callers tell of plight after audit spurred funding freeze

SANTA FE – Services to the mentally ill and addicted are being disrupted as New Mexico nonprofits are taken over by Arizona companies brought in by the state Human Services Department, callers told federal officials in a “listening session” on Wednesday.

Twenty-seven callers – consumers, their advocates and family members, and behavioral health workers – phoned in during a 90-minute session, nearly all of them critical of the fallout from the transition.

The session was scheduled by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration after Democrats in New Mexico’s congressional delegation requested a public hearing, citing complaints from constituents.

The administration of Gov. Susana Martinez in late June cut off Medicaid and state funding to 15 behavioral health nonprofits that were the biggest providers of services to a group of 30,000 adults and children considered the most vulnerable and toughest to treat.

The administration said an audit showed overbilling, widespread mismanagement and possible fraud. A dozen of the providers are being replaced by Arizona companies.

Critics say the upheaval has created fear, uncertainty and distrust among clients who are vulnerable to start with, and that it’s taxing an already fragile behavioral health system.

The HSD cosponsored the session, and HSD officials told callers they’re trying to ensure as smooth a transition as possible.

“We are responding immediately to any disruptions we hear about,” said HSD Secretary Sidonie Squier . “We want to be sure that everybody is getting the services they need.”

Paul Weeks, a therapist at the former Valencia Counseling Service in Los Lunas – being operated as of this week by Arizona provider Valle del Sol – said the agency has lost nine of 12 mental health therapists, leaving hundreds of clients without therapists. The agency’s housing director for the homeless, a drug-and-alcohol counselor, and three of five staff in the psychosocial rehabilitation program also are gone, he said.

New intake forms must be filled out for existing clients, a process that can take up to two hours, Weeks said. On Tuesday, he and two other employees managed to get 18 intakes done, he told the federal officials.

“There are many clients that are going to be waiting quite some time before they get services,” Weeks said. The agency serves about 2,000 people, he said.

There was no immediate response from Valle del Sol officials, but HSD spokesman Matt Kennicott told the Journal that some of that turnover “was precipitated by outgoing management telling people to go find new jobs.”

A woman who identified herself as the Albuquerque mother of a young man with schizophrenia said he has been a client at Hogares – now being operated by Arizona provider Open Skies – but has been without a therapist since at least early July and hasn’t yet been told whether he’ll get another one.

“He is experiencing a whole lot of distress. … We’re worried about having to hospitalize him again,” the caller said.

HSD’s Kennicott said the session yielded anecdotal information but not much in the way of solid examples of consumer problems.

“If it’s a solid, real concern, we’ll definitely address those,” he said.