Record Staff Writer
State health officials came under fire from patients, behavioral health providers and advocates Wednesday during a telephone conference, during which officials repeatedly deflected criticism about the recent decision to defund community health centers.
The phone session was organized by New Mexico Human Services Department and Washington-based Centers for Medicaid Services to provide a platform for patients and providers to update administration on problems with patient care.
The department cited a yet-to-be publicly released audit to defund the centers, 12 of which have closed and were handed over to Arizona-based companies. The department contracted with the Arizona companies to run the health centers, including Counseling Associates in Roswell.
Some remarks were made by concerned parents, who told stories of their inability to get care, therapists and medication for their children. Some patients have been forced into rehospitalization, lost longtime therapists and have suffered anxiety with the changes, they reported. Thousands of patients are without providers following several resignations, callers said.
Several homeless patients in Las Cruces were left with no services and have been hospitalized as a result, one nurse practitioner reported. The nurse has since resigned and has had her license suspended.
Many health centers were without computers, patient files and records for several weeks, callers reported. One center with 2,000 patients was forced to begin filling out patient forms by hand and had only managed to finish 18.
A few callers tried to voice their disappointment with HSD’s decision to keep the audit secret, and to turn the community health centers over to Arizona companies.
Health officials were quick to interrupt them and deflect comments. However, some demanded to be heard.
Patrick Tyrrel, executive director of the New Mexico Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, called in to say how HSD’s move had affected the state’s social workers.
“This has sent shock waves throughout the community,” Tyrrel said. “It was handled very unprofessionally. None of us were consulted.”
HSD’s Deputy General Counsel Larry Heyeck tried to cut off Tyrrel and a terse argument ensued.
“Please stop! I’m going to finish,” Tyrrel told Heyeck.
Tyrrel also was concerned about the mass exodus of behavioral health providers caused by the recent state action and the expected thousands of additional new patients that will need services next year when Obamacare is enacted.
“In January, we will have thousands of more clients,” Tyrrel said. “This is not the way to encourage more providers to continue providing services, particularly in rural areas.”
Gov. Susana Martinez announced Wednesday she is retooling the state’s largest health care program to rein in Medicaid costs.
Nearly 90,000 uninsured New Mexicans are expected to enroll in Medicaid next year under the federal health care law that expands eligibility for the program.
HSD will also roll out a revamped Medicaid program, called “Centennial Care,” intended to better coordinate medical, dental, mental health and substance abuse services provided to low-income residents.
One caller, who identified himself as a “community member,” said he found the premise of the phone conference “offensive and aggravating.”
“Communities and community members are being abandoned,” he said. “What you have created is a culture of government that is punitive. You are punishing the most fragile members of the community. You have failed to be humane, and I don’t know how you guys can sleep at night.”
CMS is expected to send representatives from Washington, D.C. to New Mexico in early September to conduct private interviews throughout the state with providers and clients, according to New Mexicans Fighting to Save Behavioral Health.
Diana McWilliams, acting director of the New Mexico Behavioral Health Services, said officials have not held public forums yet but have been “on the ground” talking with communities. The state intended to visit with every provider, especially those centers in transition, in the next six months, she said.
“We certainly are very concerned with making sure transition agencies are getting lined up with continuing care and there is the least amount of disruption as possible,” McWilliams said.
HSD has set up a call system for the transition. Patients, advocates and others in crisis can call 1-855-622-7474. Those in need of care coordination can call 1-866-660-7185.