New Mexico In Depth and the Las Cruces Sun-News filed a lawsuit Tuesday demanding the public release of an audit used by a state agency to find “credible allegations of fraud” against 15 health providers in New Mexico.
The New Mexico Human Services Department has refused to release most of the audit in response to records requests from both news organizations, citing the exemption to the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act. The exemption allows the withholding of certain types of law enforcement records.
The news organizations contend the law enforcement exemption doesn’t apply in this case in spite of the fact that the attorney general is investigating the audit’s findings. State agencies have released the audit’s executive summary and background, understanding and methods sections, but not the meat of the audit that details specific findings for each of the 15 providers.
“The state continues to think it can operate above the law,” said Sun-News Editor Jim Lawitz. “They can’t. The public has a right to know what those findings are and how it impacts members of our community.”
HSD spokesman Matt Kennicott didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The lawsuit was filed in the 3rd Judicial District Court in Las Cruces on Tuesday afternoon.
HSD has used the audit to justify freezing Medicaid payments to the 15 behavioral health organizations that provide services like drug treatment and suicide counseling to an estimated 30,000 New Mexicans. That has forced several of those providers, including three that operate in Las Cruces – Southwest Counseling Center, Families and Youth, and TeamBuilders – to hand over Medicaid-funded services to Arizona providers the state brought in to fill the gap.
In addition to withholding the audit, HSD and other state agencies have refused to respond to many questions, including a request to detail what transition and contingency plans they had in place to ensure the Medicaid payment freeze didn’t disrupt services to clients and patients.
NMID and the Sun-News hope to win release of the audit so they can do reporting to help New Mexicans understand the allegations against the providers, the reasons the state chose to freeze Medicaid payments, and the fallout of that decision.
“The role of the press is to provide the public with facts that shine a light on how a government makes its decisions,” said Trip Jennings, NMID’s executive director. “The media can’t do that in this situation while the audit remains secret.”
Las Cruces attorney C. J. McElhinney of the firm Johnson and McElhinney is representing the news organizations. In addition to seeking release of the audit, the lawsuit requests damages and attorney costs and fees.