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Protestors Plead With Governor To Stop Behavioral Health Takeover

Deborah Martinez

Protestors gathered at the state capital in Santa Fe today,  pleading with Governor Susana Martinez to change course and end the chaos now hampering New Mexico’s behavioral health system.   Front-line workers who treat extreme cases of the mentally ill reported losing touch with their clients after five Arizona firms took over operations at 12 local providers.

Las Cruces psychiatric nurse practioner Christa Scorcone’s hands shook as she shared some of her 200 patients’ testimony with the crowd, and her agony of seeing several seriously ill patients who recently had to wait several hours to see a counselor at Southwest Counseling Services.

“Patients lives are at risk, here," Scorcone said as her voice trembled.  "There was plenty of time for these Arizona companies to prepare a proper strategic business plan to take over these community mental health centers.  They failed to do this.  Very basic elements of a clinical transition were completely overlooked.”

Southwest Counseling was  taken over by Arizona firm La Frontera four weeks ago.

Scorcone repeated tales of a total lack of computers, and La Frontera’s failure to obtain an operating or pharmacy license for the facility until the state granted overnight relief.

Despite these problems, Scorcone wanted to continue contracting with the new firm, but neither she nor her supervising psychiatrist got contracts.  That leaves at least 400 patients without critical mental health care.

State Senator Linda Lopez of Albuquerque also joined protestors in demanding answers from the Martinez administration, pointing a finger at Optum Health, the management company responsible for guidance and oversight.

“What about Optum?" Lopez shouted.  "Where is Optum in this whole thing?  Are they not supposed to be the oversight? Excuse me, there’s even a bigger question on that lack of leadership.”

First-term Albuquerque Senator Bill O’Neil didn’t mince words.   He said  discussions are underway for an extraordinary session of the legislature.

“It has been done only once before in our state’s history but we have the language, the bill is all drawn up, ready to go," O'Neil said, "and it would force HSD to restore the funding to these 15 behavioral health concerns…(cheering)…it would restore the funding until they can have their day in court, until they can see what the audit says.”

That extraordinary legislative session would need a supermajority vote of two-thirds of Republican and Democratic lawmakers.  Even if the bill to restore funding was passed, O’Neil admits the governor would almost surely veto it.

A spokesman for the governor said in a statement, “We have a duty and important responsibility to protect taxpayer dollars and root out any abuse of Medicaid funding, while ensuring that consumers continue to receive uninterrupted access to care.”