Heavy-handed responses becoming habitual for Human Services dept.

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By Sherry Robinson

Lately the governor is ducking flak from the actions of two of her hires – Human Services Secretary Sidonie Squier and Regulation and Licensing Superintendent J. Dee Dennis.
Squier stormed out of a legislative committee hearing after the kitchen got too hot. Legislative committees can be brutal, and some of the more pompous lawmakers consider it their right to bluster, but Squier had some explaining to do after pulling the plug on 15 of the state’s behavioral health service providers.
To recap: Public Consulting Group accused the 15 of mismanagement and possible fraud based on its audit. PCG is paid on the basis of “findings” and misspent dollars. Without telling the nonprofits what they’re accused of, HSD halted payments, which could throw providers into bankruptcy.
Squier now intends to spend $17 million on Arizona contractors. That’s the best Plan B anybody could come up with?
Heavy-handed responses are nothing new to Squier and her department.
Last year, a Roswell lawsuit filed by a by a former Eastern New Mexico Medical Center employee got the attention of the U. S. Department of Justice, triggering an investigation by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Feds claimed that nine New Mexico hospitals made improper deals with county governments to inflate their Sole Community Provider payments.
The SCP program helps rural hospitals pay for indigent care. The federal government matches county spending 4-to-1. There was no evidence of fraud, and one attorney said it was simply a matter of interpretation.
The feds demanded $53 million from the state Human Services Department, which administers the program, but settled on $7.9 million, and the counties paid up in 2012.
It should have ended there, but no. In December, the state suspended payments, not just to the nine hospitals in question but to all 28 Sole Community Provider hospitals while it scrutinized its management of the program and resolved differences with the federal government.
It was a painful hardship on the state’s smallest and most vulnerable hospitals. HSD promised resolution in a few weeks.
It took more than six months, the payments are now smaller, and HSD still hasn’t explained itself.
We now know that Medicaid rules required HSD to act, but it threatened the 15 nonprofits based on the word of a consultant with an iffy track record. And who, exactly, are these Arizona contractors?
Recently, some providers sued, saying HSD not only threatened their operations but smeared their names. That too is becoming a theme.
When the under-qualified J. Dee Dennis ascended to the helm of the Regulation and Licensing Department in 2011, he abruptly dismissed Bill Verant, the 16-year director of the Financial Institution Division. Dennis made vague accusations of wrongdoing and spoke of an investigation.
“I was never accused of anything. There was no investigation and no results, and yet my reputation was smeared. They wouldn’t give me a reason why I was terminated.”
Verant, a political Independent, was hired during Gov. Gary Johnson’s administration and held over by Gov. Bill Richardson.
The state’s bankers were in shock.
Said Jerry Walker, of the Independent Community Bankers Association, “The banking industry, especially smaller community banks, are fighting for our lives on a regulatory basis, and having someone in that position with the depth and maturity of a Bill Verant was good for the state and good for the industry. We had someone who really understood us. I think the state is going to feel his loss.”
And we have. Under Dennis’s watch, the department recently lost accreditation by the National Association of Credit Union Supervisors. It was difficult to attain in 1996 and will be difficult to reestablish.
Cabinet members can misbehave, but more seasoned governors would have taken them to the woodshed by now or freed them to “spend more time with family.”