Governor Susana Martinez and her administration haven’t had a lot to say after the state attorney general cleared the last 2 of 15 behavioral health organizations that were accused of fraud in 2013. Their Medicaid funding was frozen and many of them have shut down.
A statement from the Human Services Department spokesman echoed what the Governor said this week - that Medicaid dollars should be used to help the people who need it most and that the attorney general is turning a blind eye to wealthy CEO's who squandered funds on private planes.
Diana Alba Soular with the Las Cruces Sun-News has been reporting on this story – she spoke with KUNM’s Elaine Baumgartel.
KUNM: What is this private plane that the Governor and the spokesman for the Human Services Department keep referring to?
Soular: One of the entities that was involved in the 2013 behavioral health shakeup in the state was Southwest Counseling Center, Inc. They were a provider here in Las Cruces for several decades. Their CEO was Roqué Garcia and he owned a plane, a 4-seater plane.
KUNM: The Martinez administration has not been referring to Garcia by name, though. Instead, you reported that they told you it was media outlets that linked Garcia to misused Medicaid dollars. How do we know that Garcia is the person that the administration is referring to?
Soular: Mr. Garcia has believed he is the person who is being referred to again and again by the administration. There’s multiple references to one of the providers having a plane and allegations that it was purchased using improper funding. And so, the circumstances seem to match what Mr. Garcia’s own situation was.
KUNM: How does Garcia say that he paid for the plane, was it Medicaid money as the Governor and her staff have implied?
Soular: The Albuquerque Journal had taken an in-depth look at this a few years back. At that time, Mr. Garcia had explained that the plane was purchased via a $200,000 loan from Southwest Counseling Center. That funding, I guess, had stemmed from a CD that was making a low interest rate at the time and he was going to pay a higher interest rate through the organization in order to buy the plane. So I guess it would have been a better return on their money for them. He says it wasn’t Medicaid funding that was used in the purchase of the plane.
KUNM: There is some tension, though, with this idea of the rich CEO with his own plane, when he's working for a non-profit organization that serves low-income people who are eligible for Medicaid. What did Garcia have to say about why he needed a private plane?
Soular: He explained it in saying that with New Mexico being such a large state, traveling by vehicle isn’t ideal because it just takes so much time and isn’t very efficient. These community health providers were having to travel frequently to meetings such as state legislative hearings. He said there was cost savings because you could travel to, say, a meeting in Santa Fe that’s a four hour drive and get back by the end of the day if you took the plane versus if you drive it’s probably an overnight trip at least. He also said that by not attending these meetings in person that the entities would lose out on having their voice heard.
KUNM: Where do things stand now? Southwest Counseling Center is no longer serving clients as a result of having their Medicaid funding frozen by the state. What’s next?
Soular: The organization continues to exist as an entity on paper for legal reasons. They have a lawsuit that’s pending in regard to this whole shakeup. And Mr. Garcia himself has filed a tort notice that could be a precursor to a lawsuit. He’s alleging that he was defamed by several top ranking state officials throughout the past few years because of the comments that they’ve made in regards to his owning of the plane as well as his use of the plane. Depending on his course of action, this could wind up in the court system and we’ll see where it goes from there.