Legislators question health audit, investigation secrecy

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The Legislative Finance Committee voted 15-1 yesterday to object to the Human Services Department’s plan to move $10.3 million of its Medicaid budget to pay for new management teams at 12 N.M. behavioral health agencies.

Lawmakers from both parties expressed frustration over how little information HSD had shared with them about its allegations against 15 audited behavioral health provider agencies, and concern over reported disruptions in care.

But HSD will make the $10.3 million change to its budget anyway, Deputy Secretary Brent Ernest told lawmakers. HSD Cabinet Secretary Sidonie Squier, who did not attend the hearing, citing a medical issue, had said as much Monday in a letter to LFC Director David Abbey.

“It’s largely a symbolic vote,” HSD spokesman Matt Kennicott said after yesterday’s LFC hearing in Chama. “Under statute, the BAR [budget adjustment request] will move forward.”

HSD needs to budget the $10.3 million “to continue providing uninterrupted care to consumers,” Kennicott said.

At HSD’s direction, five Arizona-based companies are taking over management of clinics run by 12 of 15 audited agencies currently under investigation by the Attorney General’s office for possible fraud. HSD decided to suspend Medicaid payments to the 15 providers in June, as federal regulations allow in cases of alleged fraud.

Abbey had objected to HSD’s budget adjustment request in a letter to Finance and Administration Secretary Tom Clifford. HSD had not provided information about the audit that had been requested by lawmakers and the Arizona firms’ contract rates are “high” — up to $300 an hour, Abbey’s letter noted.

At the hearing, LFC Principal Analyst Greg Geisler told lawmakers the transition to new management had disrupted behavioral health care services “despite HSD’s best efforts.”

Geisler also noted that HSD had not answered LFC requests for information. (See some of Geisler’s requests here.)

Nine Democrats and six of seven Republicans voted to support Abbey’s objection to HSD’s $10.3 million budget adjustment. Only Rep. Don Bratton, R-Hobbes, voted against the motion, saying the vote would “put the agency in a bad situation.”

“I can see why they’re doing this, because they have to provide the services,” Bratton said. “It’s a bad situation either way.”

But Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, expressed frustration over HSD’s ignoring the vote, noting that while there might be nothing lawmakers can do to stop the budget adjustment now, “there might well be something we can do come January,” when the legislature next convenes.

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