LAS CRUCES – In his signature cap, dress shirt and necktie, Roque Garcia welcomed guests to take bottles of water as they found their seats in the beaming sun Thursday morning in Las Cruces.
In front of the downtown headquarters of Southwest Counseling Center, a ribbon-cutting officially marked the reopening of the behavioral services provider one year after the center resumed its work following a hiatus of several years.
Garcia, the CEO, used the occasion to celebrate Southwest’s return and plans to expand its assistance to the community, while also decrying actions by the state of New Mexico nine years ago that devastated the state’s behavioral health network.
“It’s important that the community knows that we’re back in business, and we do good work,” he said before a small crowd that included city and state elected officials, members of Southwest’s board and of the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce, among others.
In the summer of 2013, New Mexico abruptly cut off Medicaid funding for 15 behavioral health providers statewide, including Southwest, following an audit that found potential overbilling and fraud.
The freeze precipitated a crisis across New Mexico as services were shut down, affecting tens of thousands of residents, while providers sought evidence and retrieved records of claims matching their reimbursements. The crisis drove some providers out of business altogether.
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration welcomed providers from Arizona in an effort to meet the state’s needs, but all of them eventually withdrew. One, La Frontera, leases Southwest’s offices on West Griggs Avenue.
By 2016, all of the New Mexico providers — including Southwest — had been exonerated of Medicaid fraud by the state Attorney General Hector Balderas. Meanwhile, the state paid out millions of dollars in claims brought by the providers after it was revealed the actual amount overbilled or unaccounted was a fraction of what had been claimed.
“It never had to happen, never should have happened, and never will happen again,” Lt. gov. Howie Morales, a Silver City Democrat, said in an interview at Thursday’s event.
Southwest was among five providers who shared a $10 million settlement with the state Human Services Department, one of a series of payments to agencies it had accused.
“They had this conspiracy theory that there was a lot of fraud in the behavioral health system,” Garcia recalled during an interview earlier in the week. “It didn’t matter that there was no evidence of anything.”
Garcia himself was personally accused by Martinez and other state officials of financial improprieties involving the use of his personal airplane to transport company administrators and staff to conferences and single-day meetings in other parts of New Mexico. Garcia, a licensed pilot, said it was more efficient for him and his staff to fly to northern New Mexico than to drive and stay in hotels.
Martinez’s successor, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, signed a law in 2019 guaranteeing due process for providers accused of overbilling or fraud before the state takes action. The bill was sponsored by state Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces.
Southwest ceased activity until 2018. During those five years, Garcia said the organization focused on defending itself against the Martinez Administration’s claims and researching the records of its claims and payments — sifting through 1,000 boxes full of paper records.
The Las Cruces Sun-News attempted to reach Martinez through her official website but did not get a response.
In the end, out of $2.8 million in overpayment claims, Southwest produced records justifying all of the charges except for “three or four” lost records amounting to $484.87. Ultimately, the company reimbursed $390 to the state.
“We were guilty until we proved our innocence,” Garcia declared during his speech Thursday.
After La Frontera left, La Clinica de Familia leased the building until it completed construction of LCDF’s new building on Miranda Street. By then, Southwest had merged with Border Area Health Partners and Southern New Mexico Human Development, with Garcia as CEO.
They resumed seeing patients a year ago, Garcia said, but plans for a public event were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With cases and hospitalizations climbing in New Mexico since April, Thursday’s event took place outdoors followed by an open house inside.
At the time it closed, Southwest had a staff of 140 serving 3,000 individual patients. Today, Garcia said a staff of 40 are already serving 2,300, thanks in part to an expansion of its telemedicine services, in which patients may consult with a clinician remotely.
The center offers management of prescription medications, therapy and comprehensive community support services. Its Silver City location offers psychosocial rehabilitation for adults with psychiatric disabilities. In his Thursday remarks, Garcia mentioned plans to expand staff further, potentially adding substance abuse treatment and a residential rehab setting.
An additional feature of the center is the presence of an in-house pharmacy, operated by Genoa Healthcare, organized to obtain approvals and fill prescriptions while patients are on site, eliminating extra trips.
“We know that when somebody is battling mental health issues, getting out the door, getting to the next place to get medication, is a challenge all on its own,” state Sen. Carrie Hamblen, D-Las Cruces, said at the event .
Hamblen was there in her capacity as the Green Chamber of Commerce’s director, with a large pair of shears ready to cut the symbolic ribbon near the front entrance.
“When the behavioral health system was dismantled, it was done so for political reasons,” Morales said during an impassioned speech. “It was done so to attack, and those that were impacted by that were the people that needed those services the most.”
“When we saw suicide numbers that went up, and when we saw the increase in homelessness that has taken place, and the increase in substance abuse that has been unfortunately plaguing our state, it was directly related to that decision,” he continued.
Morales also used the opportunity to highlight public health measures approved by Lujan Grisham, such as increased funding for suicide prevention programs and the elimination of copays for insured patients seeking behavioral health services.
Tears came to Garcia’s eyes when he addressed the May 24 murders at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. In his speech, Garcia called out a tendency to scapegoat mental illness as an explanation for frequent mass shootings in the United States, referring to the narrative as “a one-legged stool” while calling for “real reform, with gun safety.”
“I … want to save kids from being massacred,” he said.
After the ribbon was cut and some guests congregated inside for refreshments, Morales said he wished Jose Frietze could have been there.
Frietze was a former Las Cruces City Council member and the founder of Families and Youth Inc., another provider accused of fraud and later vindicated. Frietze died of leukemia in 2016, one month after the state Attorney General’s Office exonerated the organization.
Algernon D’Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, [email protected] or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.
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