Senior services may be in jeopardy

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By Merilee Dannemann

Seniors, take note: A state agency is about to terminate the contract of the organization that provides senior services to most of New Mexico.

The termination demand has already been delivered, but a transition is in place, through Feb. 1. The organization that got axed is complying with the transition process while also fighting the decision.

This potentially affects roughly 70,000 seniors who receive services such as meals at senior centers, home delivered meals, transportation, and caregiver respite care through government-authorized programs delivered by local providers.

The state assures us services to seniors will not be disrupted. But a number of officials, including a few state legislators and Congressman Ben Ray Lujan, are crying foul and demanding that the state rescind its decision. They do not believe the state’s assurance of uninterrupted services to seniors. Lujan’s office said he will ask the relevant federal agency to investigate.

They are saying this looks suspiciously like a rerun of the behavioral health crisis of 2013. In that event, the state terminated payment to 15 behavioral health providers serving New Mexicans under Medicaid, alleging financial malfeasance that was never proved. The Human Services Department assured the public of a smooth transition to new providers, but the plan failed. Thousands of vulnerable New Mexicans, including those with drug addiction or mental health issues, were left high and dry.

If you or a family member relies on your local senior agency for home-delivered meals, transportation or other services, pay attention. This might affect you.

Senior services are provided under combined state and federal law with state and federal money. The money and contractual supervision come through the state Aging and Long Term Services Department. That is the agency that terminated the contract, and it plans to take program administration in-house for up to six months and then issue new contracts.

The Non-Metro Area Agency on Aging (NMAAA) is the primary contractor for 32 counties, all of New Mexico except Bernalillo County, and Native American jurisdictions. NMAAA is in turn administered by the North Central New Mexico Economic Development District, which received the termination letter.

NMAAA contracts with providers who deliver the actual services to seniors in all 32 counties. There are roughly 65 providers.

The fundamental issue is whether NMAAA was doing an unacceptably sloppy job in paying providers and keeping the books. In a news release, the state agency says there has been “a pattern of inaccurate recording and reporting of funds by NMAAA” and that the termination was in part “to avoid jeopardizing our federal funding due to questionable finances by NMAAA.”

“Jeopardizing our federal funding” is what the Human Services Department said when it terminated all those behavioral health providers.

In opposition, Congressman Lujan’s office said the state agency itself may be jeopardizing federal funding by proceeding illegally. State Rep. Debbie Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, former agency secretary, said the termination was a violation of both federal law and state policy. She added the department does not have enough staff to replace NMAAA in managing these programs.

Whatever happens between now and Feb. 1, the most important question is whether seniors will continue to get services without interruption; second, whether the providers who supply those services will continue to get paid so that their ability to continue in business will not be disrupted.

What also should concern us is how this process has unfolded.

Was there really a problem with NMAAA? If so, what previous steps were taken to remediate the problem before going to this drastic action? Did the termination comply with federal requirements? The two sides differ radically on their accounts of what led us to this point.

The agency issued an annual review report on NMAAA in September 2017. The report noted some accounting discrepancies that need correction but did not come anywhere close to threatening termination. So what’s going on?