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Criminal allegations in NM behavioral health system no surprise to one advocate

By   /   August 23, 2013  /   No Comments

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – As the controversy continues over allegations of $36 million in potential misuse of funds, a former Green Party candidate for statewide and national office said she has a sense of déjà vu.

“I haven’t read the audit” of the providers in question, “but I do have concerns about the … allegations because it wouldn’t surprise me,” said Carol Miller, a longtime critic of the way behavioral health is carried out in New Mexico. “Patients and beneficiaries are often the low priorities.”

SHE'S SEEN THIS MOVIE BEFORE: A longtime critic of the behavioral health system in New Mexico, Carol Miller says the allegations of misspent Medicaid dollars doesn't surprise her.

SHE’S SEEN THIS MOVIE BEFORE: A longtime critic of the behavioral health system in New Mexico, Carol Miller says the allegations of misspent Medicaid dollars doesn’t surprise her.

Earlier this summer, the state’s Human Services Department suspended payments to more than a dozen providers after an independent auditing firm from Boston confirmed what the department said was warning signs of potential misuse of dollars.

HSD has since entered into contracts with five Arizona firms to pick up the slack. But the department, part of the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez, has been criticized for spending up to $17.85 million to fund the Arizona firms.

Last Wednesday, lawmakers from both political parties complained about the amount, saying they haven’t received enough information about the allegations surrounding the providers who had their funding cut off. HSD, the Attorney General’s Office and the State Auditor’s Office have released only an executive summary of the charges, saying providing details of the audit will jeopardize the investigation.

“These are like reruns for me,” Miller told New Mexico Watchdog by telephone from her home in Ojo Sarco. The behavioral health system in New Mexico has “never done a very good job,” she said.

“It’s gotten bounced around a lot … especially in rural areas … We had the same thing happen when (then-Gov. Bill) Richardson brought in ValueOptions. Providers were having a difficult time then too.”

ValueOptions is a health care company that used to administer Medicaid for behavioral health providers in the state for four years before the current overseer, OptumHealth, took over the contract. Optum, which said it discovered the alleged misspending through an enhanced software system, is a subsidiary of United Health Group.

Miller said patients are “stuck with whatever middleman or middle corporation the state puts in place.”

The 66-year-old Miller has unsuccessfully run for a number of statewide offices in the past 20 years and received a large amount of the vote (at least by third-party standards) in 1997, when she picked up 17 percent support in a special election for Congress.

Like so many in the Green Party, she’s a harsh critic of corporation involvement in health care (“we haven’t gained anything by this corporate model,” she said) but insisted to New Mexico Watchdog that she’s not a tax and spend liberal.

“I’m really a fiscal conservative,” she said. “We need to spend every penny wisely. That’s why I’ve always questioned why the corporate system works best.”

Miller described herself as a public health activist and works on the National Rural Health Association and its task force and said she has no current plans to run for office again.

“I do have some concerns about the allegations (of fraud),” Miller said. “Not to defend the Martinez administration but we had a lot of these same problems before … Patients and beneficiaries get used as political footballs no matter who’s running the system.”

Update 8/24: Miller e-mailed us to say, “I am an Independent, not a Green. My last run for Congress in 2008 garnered twice as many votes (nearly 40,000) than as a Green in 1997.”

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rob@nmwatchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

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Since 2010, Rob Nikolewski has covered New Mexico politics and investigated fraud, waste and abuse in government. He also writes an opinion column in the Sunday editions of the Santa Fe New Mexican. Rob joined New Mexico Watchdog after 20 years in television as a sports anchor and reporter. He anchored at MSNBC, New York City, Boston, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Reno and Boise, winning three regional Emmy awards along the way. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, a master's in public administration from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and a bachelor's degree in journalism from Trinity University in San Antonio.