KUNM

Roswell Braces For Departure Of Health Services Provider

Jan 28, 2015

Credit Chris Blakeley via Flickr / Creative Commons license

Roswell Mayor Dennis Kintigh reached into his shoulder bag and pulled out a four-page brochure Monday at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe.

The pamphlet the former Republican state lawmaker held begins with this statement in bold lettering: “The behavioral health system in Chaves County is in crisis.”

The brochure is the product of an ad hoc committee formed by a state court district judge in Roswell, Kintigh says. The pamphlet goes on to warn of the consequences when a community has too few services for the mentally ill and other vulnerable populations.

Starting April 1, Southeastern New Mexico could face such a scenario when Turquoise Health and Wellness, an Arizona company that offers mental health services to Medicaid patients in cities including Roswell, Carlsbad, Clovis and Tucumcari, will cease operations March 31.

Turquoise is one of five Arizona companies the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez brought to New Mexico in the summer of 2013 to take over for more than a dozen New Mexico health organizations. The New Mexico Human Services Department (HSD) froze the New Mexico organizations' Medicaid dollars after a state-ordered audit found potential over-billing and fraud.

The HSD went on to accuse the New Mexico organizations of “credible allegations of fraud” and asked law enforcement to investigate. In 2014, the Attorney General's office cleared two of the 15 organizations of fraud allegations. The state's new Attorney General, Hector Balderas, recently told state lawmakers that investigations into several of the other organizations are at various stages of completion while investigations into the remainder of the accused organizations have not begun.

Over the past 19 months, most of the New Mexico organizations accused of potential Medicaid fraud have shut their doors without ever hearing what they were accused of.

Now, in Southeastern New Mexico, when Turquoise leaves it’s unclear who will pick up the pieces -- or who will care for the area's vulnerable population.

“I’m here saying, ‘We don’t have alternatives,’" Kintigh said of his visit Monday to talk to his former colleagues in the Roundhouse about the situation.

Roswell is a city of more than 48,000 less than an hour's drive from the Texas border. Kintigh said the loss of a provider wouldn't leave a larger city like Albuquerque without options. The situation is different in Roswell.

“I don’t know who to turn to," Kintigh said.

The Human Services Department has handed over the responsibility of ensuring vulnerable populations Turquoise was serving are cared for to state contractors that run New Mexico's Medicaid program, called Centennial Care, said HSD spokesman Matt Kennicott. Medicaid, the government's health insurance program for the low income, also provides services for the mentally ill and those struggling with drug addiction.

It's not clear how those contractors will fill the void. Meanwhile, local officials in Roswell are searching for solutions, Kintigh says.

The ad hoc committee formed by the state district court judge includes the police, caregivers, hospitals – anyone who can help – to try to identify a potential solution, Kintigh explains.

“But this is beyond the scope of a city or a county. This is a statewide issue. We’re looking for solutions. The good news is folks up here recognize that,” Kintigh says of New Mexico's state lawmakers.

According to the brochure produced by the ad hoc committee, Chaves County already has experienced a drop-off in many services, including adult outpatient mental health and substance abuse treatment, psychiatric and nursing services as well as services for children and adolescents.

Meanwhile, the local court system has been swamped by the consequences of the reduced services, according to the brochure. The courts handle competency determinations (in which the court decides if an individual is mentally competent to stand trial); probation; juvenile justice and neglect proceedings; and domestic violence proceedings.

For example, in 2012, the 5th Judicial District Court in Chaves County had 75 criminal mental competency and involuntary mental commitment matters opened, according to the brochure. In 2014, the number of cases more than doubled, to 156.

“The increased number of cases… has resulted in significant extended delays in getting competency evaluations completed,” the brochure reads. “In many instances, that means that the defendants remain incarcerated for longer periods of time before their case can move forward or be dismissed.”

Kintigh, a former FBI agent who briefly led Roswell’s Police Department and then worked as a Chaves County Sheriff’s Department detective for a spell, calls law enforcement and the criminal justice system the “concrete floor beneath the safety net of social services.”

“When that safety net fails, bam, law enforcement has to answer the 911 calls,” he says. “Law enforcement is not equipped nor should it be equipped to deal with mental health. The answer is not more critical incident training. Not that that’s not a good thing. It is good. But it’s putting a tourniquet on a broken vein. We need to make sure the body doesn’t get damaged.”