Keep public’s business public

September 7, 2013 • Editorial

We [auth] are baffled at the secrecy surrounding the findings of an audit financed by the state that’s prompting management changes at 15 New Mexico nonprofit behavioral health care providers. Suspending payments for vital services and then forcing leadership changes without explanation to the health care employees, their patients or the public is unconscionable.

The New Mexico Human Services Department in June froze payments to 15 nonprofits that provide mental health and substance abuse services after an audit found what the agency said was a high rate of billing problems and possible mismanagement.

State Attorney General Gary King has supported the department’s actions and is keeping secret the findings of Public Consultant Group’s audit until the investigation is complete.

These organizations provide services to people who really need help, including autistic children and adults struggling with addiction or mental illness. The services are provided at taxpayer expense because they help the clients and they benefit society as a whole.

Locally, Counseling Associates has been taken over by Turquoise Health and Wellness Inc. Community Support Services. NMHSD signed a contract with the Phoenix, Ariz., company for $2 million to take over services in Roswell, Clovis, Portales, Fort Sumner and Tucumcari.

To make matters worse, in addition to the the secrecy shrouding the audit there are growing signs of irregularities surrounding the audit process itself:
• North Carolina hired Public Consulting Group to audit small behavioral health providers there. After a lengthy investigation, most of the audit findings were not substantiated. That finding came too late for the many providers which were put out of business when funding was frozen.

• A lawyer fired by the New Mexico Human Services Department says she was let go because of her criticism of the audit. The attorney stated in a lawsuit that her firing was in retaliation for her complaints to the state Attorney General’s Office and the State Auditor’s Office months before the audit.

In a complaint filed in state District Court last month, attorney Elizabeth Jeffreys said she went to the attorney general and state auditor on Feb. 26 to report “irregularities in the arrangements for audits of behavioral health providers on behalf of OptumHealth,” the company under contract with the state to oversee New Mexico’s managed care system for behavioral health.

• New Mexico officials considered contracts with Arizona providers before state firms had been notified of fraud allegations and visited at least one Arizona behavioral health care provider before the audit even began.

A representative for Public Consulting Group told New Mexico lawmakers that he traveled with members of Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration to tour one of the Arizona firms later paid to take over New Mexico nonprofits.

Talk about a mess. A New Mexico government agency contracts an out-of-state company instead of its established auditor to conduct an audit. The results of the audit are kept under wraps. Then NMHSD contracts Arizona companies, one of which was toured by New Mexico officials before the audit was even conducted, to manage the New Mexico behavioral health providers.

It is entirely possible the audit did indeed reveal wrongdoing. We don’t know. The nonprofits don’t know. The public doesn’t know. That is the problem. Given that the audit was paid for by state government, and investigating government payments, we should know.

The correct order of affairs in this incident should have started with an investigation into the findings of the audit. Next, the results of the investigation should have been presented to the nonprofits in question and the public. Only then should any action have been taken.

So much for the principle of being innocent until proven guilty and the right to confront the evidence before judgement and sentencing is passed.

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