By Steve Hansen
QCS Managing Editor
A state legislative committee is objecting to the release of $10 million to protest secrecy over an audit accusing behavioral health agencies of possible fraud.
The New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee had delayed an allocation of $10.3 million for the state Human Services Department to advance the transition to new behavioral health providers. The committee voted Wednesday to “object” to the funding, protesting secrecy about the audit that led to suspending payments to 15 behavioral health providers, David Abbey, LFC’s staff director said.
The transition forced the closing of the TeamBuilders agency serving most of eastern New Mexico.
The services providers once performed are being transferred to five Arizona organizations.
While the committee’s 15-1 vote does not have the force of a mandate, it “expresses the views of the 16 members of the legislature” who are on the committee, Abbey said.
The HSD, he said, needs to remember the Legislature is the appropriating body to fund department operations. The Legislature, he said, “will have an opportunity to weigh in” on the funding of future HSD operations.
Members of the committee and other legislators, Abbey said, will be “monitoring how patients are affected and the effect on business and employment.”
He also said the committee will likely be requesting hearings on the issue soon.
Abbey said members noted there have been delays in getting offices staffed and problems with temporary licenses having to be issued in the absence of permanent ones for some services.
Matt Kennicott, spokesperson for HSD, said the department is going ahead with transitional funding. He said is authorized by state statute.
As for future budgeting, he said, the department will make requests and follow up with the legislature as it always has. The department, he said, is making plans to hold public forums on issues related to the changes.
In another protest, members of New Mexico’s U.S. Congressional delegation sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebilius requesting the federal department hold public forums in New Mexico about behavioral health issues.
The letter, dated Aug. 14 and signed by U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, along with U.S. Reps. Ben Ray Luján and Michelle Lujan Grisham, all Democrats, called for the forum “to give constituents the opportunity to provide detailed input and feedback about their access to quality behavioral health services as a result of recent changes in Medicaid service providers,” according to joint press release issued by all four Congressional representatives.
U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican, apparently did not sign the letter. Joseph Casados, a constituent liaison for Lujan, said Pearce was invited to be a signer.
Pearce’s communications director, Eric Layer said, “Those providers with no question of their operation should continue receiving payments without interruption. However, for those with questions, more must come to light.”
Pearce , he said, is not comfortable asking for payments to these providers “until the questions of the audit are fully answered. The Congressional role as watchdog for the taxpayer demands nothing less.
“We urge the state to work in the coming days to release the audit to address this issue,” Layer said. Then, he said, payments should resume for providers with no findings against them to “ensure those who need help continue to receive it. ”
The state HSD cut off funding in July to 15 providers of behavioral health services, including TeamBuilders Counseling Service after an audit the department commissioned found evidence of fraud and abuse in the providers’ Medicaid billings. The providers represented 85 percent of the state’s behavioral health billings to Medicaid.
The department has never made details about the evidence against individual providers public, because, it said, it would jeopardize subsequent investigation of the charges.
HSD immediately turned the audit findings over to the New Mexico Attorney General’s office for further investigation. The Attorney General has also refused to divulge details of the findings or any further investigation.