State Senator Bill O’Neill: Cutting off services hurts state’s vulnerable

As of this writing, because of a well-publicized audit commissioned by our state’s Human Services Department, 15 private nonprofit providers of “behavioral health services” have been accused of various and unspecified levels of noncompliance with their respective contracts, and as a result they have been informed that their ongoing funding will be immediately stopped (though last week three of these 15 were granted a qualified and temporary reprieve).

ONeillThe flagged infractions go back to 2009 and vary from minor bookkeeping errors to serious allegations of fraud. Human Services Department Secretary Sidonie Squier appeared before our Legislative Health and Human Services Committee last week to clarify the reasons for the severe step of essentially shutting these programs down before any of these agencies had a chance to respond to these allegations, and as many media outlets reported, it did not go well. Secretary Squier stormed out of the meeting refusing to answer any more questions, and our co-chairman was taken to the hospital with stroke-like symptoms after being quoted as saying that the secretary was “attempting to destroy the behavioral health system of the state.”

Happily my Senate colleague is doing fine — it was not as serious as it appeared — and our dialogue with the Human Services Department is far from over. I am a member of the Health and Human Services Committee but was unfortunately not present for this noteworthy exchange. I am also a member of the Behavioral Health Subcommittee that met the following Tuesday in Roswell, where I was definitely present to hear the riveting testimony from several of the targeted 15 agencies, the effect that these accusations have had already on their staffs, their clients and perhaps most importantly on their ability to survive financially.

Representatives from the Department of Human Services were conspicuously absent from this committee hearing, though invitations were repeatedly sent and their lack of participation represented a major deviation from legislative interim committee practice.

So, what is all of the drama about, and why should we care? Who are we talking about when we use the term “behavioral health”? And what is the big deal over these 15 providers potentially going out of business? Were they not out of compliance with their contracts, or at least so alleged by Secretary Squier and the Boston-based Public Consulting Group who conducted this $3 million audit?

When we speak of behavioral health in our state, we are talking about developmentally challenged individuals who require caseworkers and a range of outpatient services. We are talking about children in foster care, or a family member who is in desperate need of clinical intervention because of his or her addiction to pain killers.

So, what about the specifics of this controversy? What is going on here?

Here is what I can piece together so far: First of all, accusations have been made — and they are just that, accusations. Secretary Squier did not have to cut off all of the funding immediately, as she has done, without public examination of the specific audit findings and before the agencies involved could attempt to answer these charges. Also, I was stunned to learn in Tuesday’s committee hearing that this out-of-state consulting group is actually reimbursed according to the number of “findings” (and total dollars) that it uncovers. Audits on commission? Really? In 2012, this firm did a similar audit of the North Carolina’s behavioral health system — where its fee ultimately depended on what it could presumably find — and the accuracy of its findings remains in serious dispute, including by the North Carolina State Auditor. The Human Services Department has the capability to reinstate the funding immediately for these affected agencies, which would give everyone involved (including now our Attorney General’s Office) the time to sort out this bad situation.

Or we can simply drive these 15 providers into bankruptcy and public discredit.

And then where does that put us as a state?

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State Sen. Bill O’Neill represents District 13 in Albuquerque.