By Denise Tessier
“Piecemeal” best describes coverage the Albuquerque Journal has given to what is turning out to be the biggest story of the year in New Mexico – the decimation of the state’s medical providers in behavioral health.
With every story that runs, questions remain, including the most important: how all this turmoil affects patients, including some of the most fragile people in the state – those who seek drug treatment, are in foster care, need counseling, have PTSD or perhaps are contemplating suicide.
Normally when a story constantly evolves as this one has, it has been customary for editors – in service to the readers – to pull together at some point a summary that puts all the pieces in one narrative.
At first glance, the Sept. 8 Sunday Journal front-page investigation by Journal Investigative Reporter Mike Gallagher appeared to be the awaited summary. Instead, it was an all-new story adding a surprising twist to the saga – saying that top executives of half a dozen of the 15 New Mexico behavioral health nonprofits caught in a no-bid audit’s matrix of “possible irregularities” are paid via an Arizona company.
That same story quoted Human Services Department Secretary Sidonie Squier as saying the arrangement “is riddled with financial conflicts of interest, and it calls into question whether Medicaid dollars are being spent appropriately.”
To the lay reader, it’s interesting that this New Mexico/Arizona payroll arrangement is news to HSD, considering it had been in talks with other mental health care companies in Arizona since January, anticipating that it would be turning over to them the operations of the eventual 12 New Mexico companies HSD would freeze out of funding.
Again, more questions arise. But a good part of the reason reports have been incomplete and the reportage has been piecemeal is because of secrecy on the part of the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez.
The Journal has published scores of stories by several reporters on the controversy, plus numerous letters and columns, and six editorials (one of which blamed the whole thing on Obamacare), three of which urged HSD to make public the no-bid audit that led to this morass. The first of the latter three ran July 7 and included this:
Several lawmakers understandably want answers. “I don’t believe you should be able to spend $17 million of taxpayers’ money rectifying problems you’re not willing to specify,” said state Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque.
The call for transparency was reiterated Sunday (Sept. 15) in an editorial recapping Gallagher’s reporting.
But despite the volume, the Journal’s coverage does not feel as pointed as that of other media.
Take, for example, the Journal’s coverage of the pro-Martinez radio ad that began airing last week on KBIM in Roswell, and how it compares to that of the Santa Fe New Mexican.
The New Mexican’s Steve Terrell broke the story Tuesday (Sept. 10) with “Radio spot touts Martinez’s tough stance on Medicaid fraud.”
Online, the story includes access to the 60-second ad that urges listeners to phone in and tell Martinez to “keep fighting the fraud, protecting Medicaid for the most vulnerable.” The subhead on Terrell’s story: “Out-of-state group airs spot as Martinez raises election funds back East.”
In writing this first story, Terrell tried to find out who placed the ads, writing:
Little is known about New Mexico Competes, the sponsor of the ads. . . .The group isn’t listed on the secretary of state’s register of political committees in New Mexico.
He credited the Santa Fe Reporter with reporting in May about a group named New Mexico Competes, located on Washington, D.C.’s K Street, hence the sub headline reference to an “out-of-state” group.
Catching up the next day, the Journal didn’t have a print story, but online ran five sentences from Associated Press under the head “Ads backing governor in behavioral health dispute.” This brief story provided the name of New Mexico Competes’ executive director, her background working for Republicans and her statement that New Mexico Competes is a nonprofit public policy organization and unaffiliated with any political group.
What followed is where it gets interesting.
The New Mexican ran a second story Sept. 11 (the day of the brief online Journal story) — “Nonprofit with Martinez link behind mental-health radio ads” – and it led thusly:
The nonprofit group running radio ads supporting Gov. Susana Martinez’s handling of the state mental-health system shake-up is run by a former official in Martinez’s administration with a history in New Mexico Republican politics. (My emphasis added.)
The Journal’s Sept. 12 follow-up, this time by a staffer, broke no ground with the headline “Ad lauds gov. over system shake-up.” (And yes, it possibly was still news to those who only read the printed Journal.) With publication of this story, the Journal finally had in newsprint the name of the nonprofit and its executive director, Sara Lister. And like the New Mexican’s second-day story, the Journal listed some of Lister’s background – work for former Sen. Pete Domenici, her involvement in George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign in New Mexico and her service as deputy Cabinet secretary for the state Department of Workforce Solutions.
What it didn’t mention was that she was cabinet secretary under Martinez. There was no “Martinez link” in the Journal’s headline or story; in fact, the Journal story quoted Martinez’s political consultant, Jay McCleskey, as saying, “Gov. Martinez and her political committee did not form this organization, nor control its activities (sic).”
The Journal, like McCleskey, essentially positioned the story as if to say Martinez and her administration had nothing to do with the ads, that perhaps the ads could be construed as grassroots in nature. In fact, the Journal story’s last paragraph put New Mexico Competes on a par with “other tax exempt groups” that have been “active on hot-button state issues, including the Albuquerque-based Center for Civic Progress.”
(I think the writer meant Center for Civic Policy. ABQJournalWatch is a project of CCP.)
The New Mexican, in contrast, in an update of its online story, included this emailed information from Lister:
Lister likened the ads by New Mexico Competes to the activities of ProgressNow New Mexico, a liberal advocacy group that has been critical of Martinez.
“We will not contest that those who support New Mexico Competes share an ideology with Gov. Martinez and the majority of New Mexicans that the state must put forward pro-growth economic policies and improve educational performance in the classroom,” Lister said in an email statement.
Sounds like Martinez has – just beyond her own arm’s length – the benefit of a group set up to defend the governor at any time, on any issue.
New Mexico Competes’ ad also quotes the Journal, in essence creating an echo chamber of the desired message. As Terrell noted in his first story, the ad focuses on alleged fraud, not yet substantiated, rather than the fallout from the administration’s freezing of funds to nearly all of the providers audited. The ad says:
Medicaid fraud hurts those who need help the most: The poor, the vulnerable. A recent audit exposed $36 million in potential fraud. . . .
The Albuquerque Journal reported one CEO couple pocketed more than $1.5 million a year in a sketchy leasing scheme. But it gets worse. KOB TV reported another CEO used Medicaid funds to fly his private plane to his vacation home in Mexico. Now records reveal the CEO got the loan for his private plane from a company receiving Medicaid funds.
As Terrell pointed out, the Journal story was based on a part of the audit that was leaked to the newspaper — an audit the Martinez administration and Attorney General Gary King have refused to release in full – and that KOB’s report was apparently based on a leak as well. Thus the ad focuses on the only information the administration wants public.
The Las Cruces Sun-News last week called out the Martinez administration for its selective leaks of information to the media in its editorial, “If audit can be leaked, it can be released.” And the Sun-News, with its online media partner New Mexico In Depth, has filed a lawsuit in District Court in Las Cruces demanding that the administration release the entire 400-page audit.
Relations between Martinez and press groups frustrated by lack of transparency appear to be growing testier on both sides, particularly with regard to this story.
Las Cruces Sun-News Managing Editor Walter Rubel alluded to the tension in a column Aug. 10, in which he pointed out how difficult it is to report accurately on the HSD story while being left in the dark. His column, “Governor explains action taken against mental health clinics,” led with this:
During an editorial board meeting with the governor Friday, I suggested that the state has taken a “trust us” approach to the complicated issues surrounding its decision to freeze funds to mental health clinics accused of fraud.
“Yeah, it’s your job to make it clear,” she shot back.
A few days later, New Mexico In Depth Director Trip Jennings wrote a column in the form of an open letter to the governor, referencing Rubel’s experience, expressing his organization’s own frustration in trying to get information. He wrote:
Tell officials in your administration to start answering the media’s questions. Tell them to turn over requested public documents and not to deflect tough questions with non-responsive talking points.
In a radio interview Sept. 11 with Randy Harris on KSNM’s “Let’s Talk, Las Cruces,” In Depth reporter / Deputy Director Heath Haussamen said In Depth has filed 77 public information requests, each representing questions asked of and yet unanswered by the Martinez administration.
And New Mexico In Depth and the Sun-News aren’t the only media organizations that have filed suit against the administration.
The Santa Fe Reporter – which, along with Haussamen, will be awarded the 2013 William Dixon Freedom Award from the Foundation for Open Government next month – has filed suit in Santa Fe District Court, alleging that Martinez is violating the free press provision of the New Mexico Constitution by failing to respond to Santa Fe Reporter inquiries, while responding to other media on the same subjects. The Journal’s Thom Cole, who wrote about the suit in an UpFront column Sept. 7, quoted Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell as saying the lawsuit is “baseless.” Cole also wrote that Knell called the award-winning Reporter a “left-wing weekly tabloid.”
Meanwhile, on Saturday (Sept. 14), The New York Times took notice of what is turning out to be New Mexico’s biggest story of the year (not counting drought, fire and floods), publishing “Fraud Investigation Unsettles Mental Health Care in New Mexico.”
That story provides a glimpse of how the freezing of funds has affected patients, something we still haven’t seen much of in local media:
The 15 accused providers served 30,000 of the most vulnerable mentally ill patients in New Mexico, a poor state with one of the nation’s highest suicide rates. And complaints from those who say their treatment has been compromised by the transition have added to the chaos.
In late August, the federal Medicaid agency held a conference call on which it heard from dozens of family members and mental health workers, who told of disruptions in treatment and confusion.
. . . Hugh Hammant, a psychologist at Memorial Medical Center in Las Cruces, said that the rate of hospitalizations had risen drastically since a local mental health agency’s funds had been frozen.
In a letter provided to a state lawmaker, he wrote that patients had grown upset after struggling to make appointments with the new provider.
“A good number of these patients had been emotionally stable for years, properly medicated and living relatively normal lives,” Dr. Hammant wrote. “Unfortunately, these same people became psychotic or suicidal.”
Meanwhile, the New Mexican again led the way in reporting Sept. 12 that a coalition of mental health specialists, advocates and clients called New Mexicans Fighting to Save Behavioral Health had raised about $3,500 to launch its own ad as counterpoint to the pro-Martinez ads. “Radio ad lambastes Martinez over behavioral health crisis” says:
The ad, which began running Wednesday on KOB TV Channel 4, calls the behavioral-health situation a “disaster” and says, “The governor has placed New Mexico’s vulnerable citizens in the hands of outsiders whose CEOs are being paid up to $300 per hour during the transition, and who are not familiar with our traditions or our culture. . . What’s next? Transfer of the New Mexico Department of Health to Texas?”
Among those paying to disseminate this message are Health Action New Mexico, New Mexico Voices for Children, the National Association of Social Workers, the New Mexico Psychological Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, according to the article.
The governor is controlling the information here – whether administratively or by proxy with New Mexico Competes. Legislators, citizens and the media are hobbled by lack of information, not knowing exactly what fraud there might be with the audit only partially unwrapped.
Columnist Ned Cantwell, who writes for the Mountain View Telegraph (an edition of the Albuquerque Journal) summed up how all this looks to the lay person in a column that used his “New Jersey friend Barney” as the literary device:
“What do you guys call Susana Martinez? Governor? Dictator?” Barney barked into the phone.
. . .Barney seldom backs me whimpering into a corner, but I must admit he was onto some damaging stuff here. . . .
Tristan Ahtone of KUNM News has created a timeline of the behavioral health care crisis, which can be accessed here.