Health care

Hurdles for new behavioral health managers get higher

This week marks the beginning of new management for another one of the New Mexico's nonprofits under investigation for alleged Medicaid fraud.  Three out of four of the counselors who treated patients at Valencia Counseling Services in Los Lunas, are no longer working there, and that has the new management team on edge.

Only three of 12 counselors remain to provide services to patients experiencing mental health issues like schizophrenia, suicidal thoughts, and substance abuse.  To say there has been disruption in this Los Lunas community is an understatement.

“Anyone who says there hasn’t been disruption is naïve," said Valle del Sol’s Chief Executive Officer Kurt Sheppard.

Sheppard says he’s had better days. Although he offered to hire anyone who applied, one-third of the Valencia Counseling staff did not sign up with Sheppard’s Arizona behavioral health company.

“Yeah, certainly there’s been some impact," Sheppard said, "and our hope is to continue to try to mitigate that as much as possible; start to build trust again with the folks who may have been impacted because, you know, we want to make sure folks who need services get them.”

And some services are getting harder to come by. The Los Lunas agency has yet to replace its bilingual drug and alcohol abuse counselor, or the director of its homeless housing program who left last month.

For the dozens of Medicaid patients who'll walk through these doors this week, their trusted relationship with their therapists is fractured.

Al Kaylor won't be seeing his therapist, Kristen Knoll, anymore.  He lives with schizophrenia, and now must be assigned someone new.

“It’s every week for me for the rest of my life, with my therapist," Kaylor said. "It’s every day for me with my meds. My meds don’t cure me; they allow my mind to slow down or pick up enough to be able to say, ‘where am I at, and how am I gonna cope with things today.’”

Coping skills are usually what Kristen Knoll imparts to her patients.  Now, as she tearfully starts a new chapter in her life, she has to rely on those coping skills herself.

“You know my main concern has been my clients," Knoll said, "and then over the weeks and weeks of the stress and the not knowing, you know, I’m impacted, and my ability to give the care to them is impacted, and the unknown…I’m angry that all this has to…I can’t even talk about it.”

Knoll chose not to sign on with the new company.

Fifty-six of the 86 employees who worked for Valencia Counseling Services have been hired by Valle del Sol, according to the CEO.  Most have been hired at the same rates as before, with one major change – everyone loses the personal time off they had earned.

One employee who had two full weeks banked quit to take care of her ailing husband.  Sheppard says he is offering insurance to his new staff, but he couldn’t afford to pay accrued leave.

“It’s just too great a liability to take on,” said Sheppard.

While Valle del Sol’s $2-million contract with the state lists salaries from $50 an hour for secretaries to $100 for nurses and counselors, Sheppard’s inherited staff will still earn what they made before, which is a fraction of those rates. For instance, secretaries at Valencia Counseling Services make about $10 per hour and nurses earn $40.  In addition, all will begin with their leave balances at zero.  Still, Valle del Sol’s new executive director, Kathy Albrecht Turner smiles as she repeats what she’s told her new staff.

“You know, there’s nothing we can’t do together, and we’re gonna do great work and have fun while we’re doing it," Albrecht Turner said.  "It’s hard work, it’s stressful work, but it’s important for us to have fun and treat each other well and take care of each other.”

Albrecht Turner, who's worked in NM before, has clinical experience treating patients with addiction and mental health issues.

Valle del Sol’s emergency contract ends in December. But according to Governor Susana Martinez's administration, the five Arizona firms that’ve taken over the New Mexico non-profits will remain in New Mexico. Beginning in January these new nonprofits will work under the four managed care organizations contracted by the state as part of Medicaid expansion known as Centennial Care.

KUNM News is a New Mexico In Depth media partner