Counseling center shutdown teaches important health care lessons

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SANTE FE, N.M. - The Southwest Counseling Center, a Las Cruces, N.M.-based nonprofit providing mental health and substance abuse counseling for low-income people, has closed because of lack of funds. Many of its patients worry about the quality of help available from the Arizona-based for-profit companies hired by the state to replace it and other local providers.

During its existence of half a century, the Southwest Counseling Center depended on the funding it received through Medicaid. Thousands of people across the state rely on community service providers like this center for mental health treatment. However, following an audit questioned by many, this summer the state withheld Medicaid funding from 15 nonprofit mental health agencies including the Southwest Counseling Center. The sudden financial strain forced the center to shut its doors.

In June, an audit by a private firm, Public Consulting Group, alleged Medicaid overbilling and fraud totaling $36 million by the 15 local behavioral health care providers across New Mexico. Citing this study, the administration of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez immediately halted Medicaid payments to all 15 community-based nonprofits, claiming she was required to by federal regulations. Gov. Martinez brought forward a group of for-profit health care companies from Arizona to take over the services that had been provided by community-based nonprofit organizations. She claims that the now-unfunded centers' patients, treated for problems ranging from suicidal tendencies to addiction, need not fear any disruption to their services.

But, observers have questioned the reliability of Public Consulting Group's numbers. When the company carried out a similar audit for North Carolina, charging organizations there with fraud totaling $38.5 million, an investigation by the state auditor corrected the figure to $3.7 million. Indeed, North Carolina's own auditor cautions that PCG's results have "not proven to be reliable." Further, the Martinez administration's claim that "federal regulations" required them to withhold funding fail to hold water as well. Regulations allow for state discretion is cases like this one - New Mexico could have continued funding these services. It chose not to. Why?

A right-wing governor has used an unreliable study and nonexistent federal requirements to replace local, community-based, nonprofit health care providers with out-of-state for-profit companies. Meanwhile, the New Mexicans who depend on these vital services are trapped. Despite Gov. Martinez's promises to the contrary, organizations like the Southwest Counseling Center are dying as the state investigation drags on, months later. Without community input or local accountability, low-income patients are the losers. Their needs come second to a profit-based health care industry. The state's agenda seems indifferent to the most vulnerable people in this situation - funding remains uncertain, but the out-of-state companies stand to do good business.

Free, universal public health care would cut off problems like this before they happened. After all, if the government put patients first and provided strongly funded, community-focused health care to the people who need it, then the people who need treatment would win. Their local agencies would support them and be supported by the government, instead of being underfunded and attacked by right-wing politicians. What does the situation in New Mexico teach us? Profit in health care is ultimately opposed to health care justice, and public support for comprehensive health care is indispensable for the people who need our support the most.

Photo Martha Evry/Obama for America CC 2.0