Slashed funding for mental health sparks protest
A New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee meeting in which the committee was supposed to discuss behavioral health in New Mexico drew hundreds into UNM’s Student Union Building Wednesday afternoon.
About 500 people raised signs silently in the meeting to protest the state government’s recent decision to freeze funding for 15 behavioral health facilities around the state.
Kenneth Davis, a Los Lunas resident who was one of the organizers of the protest, said the freeze would affect 85 percent of the state’s behavioral health facilities. He said the move was “unconstitutional,” and that it would critically hurt people with mental illness in New Mexico.
“We organized this to ensure that there will be services for people suffering from mental illness,” he said. “This is an arbitrary process that is not in due process of law. It places over 30,000 of New Mexico’s most vulnerable people at risk of relapse, hospitalization or worse. And possibly, when they relapse, they could hurt someone else.”
Last month, New Mexico’s Human Services Secretary Sidonie Squier withdrew Medicaid funding from 15 behavioral health facilities after an audit by a Boston firm found that the facilities mishandled their dollars. The audit allegedly found that the facilities have overbilled millions of dollars and may have engaged in fraudulent activities.
But Davis said the audit’s results were not accurate because the firm’s standards were too strict. He said in a similar audit in North Carolina, the firm incorrectly audited facilities in the state.
“This auditing firm in Boston did a similar audit in North Carolina,” he said. “After they committed the destruction of behavioral health clinics in North Carolina, they found that there were $3 million dollars in mispayment from honest mistakes. The company does not have a good record.”
According to the New Mexico Watchdog, the department has already lined up Arizona contractors to provide training and advise the audited facilities. The article also says the department has already allotted $17 million for the contractor services.
“The agencies are going to provide services until they can no longer keep their doors open,” he said. “This is a slap on the face of everyone who lives in New Mexico. The government feels that we cannot manage our own affairs.”
But in the meeting, Squier said her department did not take the audit easily, and that the department chose to freeze funding to the facilities to stay cautious about the audit results.
“The 15 provider agencies that are being investigated failed the management services audit,” she said. “And they didn’t just fail it by a little bit. They failed by a large margin. If this were just about simple errors, we wouldn’t be here today.”
Squier said the audit was based on papers handed out by the behavioral health facilities to the auditing firm. She said after the firm dismissed “unintentional claims” made by the audited facilities, they still had a 74 percent error rate with regard to their funding.
In addition, the facilities have hugely mishandled their Medicaid funding, Squire said.
“What we found is a 57 percent error rate on cases that could have potentially impacted the safety and health of the consumer,” she said. “We also found that in several other instances, evidence of transactions that were maybe designed for personal benefit of persons involved … We look at errors that are so far above any kind of error that is remotely acceptable.”
The attorney general’s office is investigating the audited facilities, Squier said. She said she stands by her decision to freeze their funding.
“My number one priority, and indeed, my job, is to protect behavioral health services,” she said. “It’s a very difficult issue. I’m really hoping that what we’re doing is the right thing to do. We will be able to strengthen the system by guaranteeing that consumer care and taxpayer dollars are protected in the most responsible manner.”
According to the Albuquerque Journal, the Human Services Department restored funding to one of the 15 facilities on Wednesday. The department has denied funding reinstatement requests from 11 others, and is still discussing whether to consider requests from the remaining three.
Davis said he helped start organizing the protest two weeks ago. He said he contacted TeamBuilders Counseling, Inc., a statewide behavioral health program, for support and was successful to have an additional 200 people at the event.
Hellen Rockwell, who has two children participating in TeamBuilder’s behavioral counseling program, attended the protest with her children. She said the freeze would greatly disadvantage her children.
“Without behavioral health, my children wouldn’t receive medication,” she said. “They wouldn’t receive therapy. There are a lot of things they’re going to end up losing. My children could end up in the street, doing drugs, who knows?”
Rockwell said she urges the department to restore funding to behavioral facilities in the state.
“I don’t like it,” she said. “Please don’t take mental health services away from the children.”
Although he is pessimistic that the department would restore funding to the other audited behavioral facilities, Davis said he encourages New Mexico residents to speak out against the freeze.
“I expect the state basically to stick to its guts,” he said. “I expect them to continue the freeze of the funding until these agencies have gone bankrupt. We need New Mexico to be vocal about this.”