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Monsters are still in the closet for patients

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By Sherry Robinson

CHILE PAC’s half-hour infomercial titled “Breakdown” is an interesting entry into campaign debate.
Its subject is the human impact of the state Human Services Department’s shutdown of 13 behavioral health providers and their replacement with five Arizona firms.
Concerned Hispanics Involved in Legislative Empowerment used documentary techniques to take the audience inside the homes of people struggling to care for a mentally ill relative. It also gives a voice to providers who were disgraced and thrown out with no chance to defend themselves.
Aired recently, “Breakdown” is obviously aimed at Gov. Susana Martinez. Her campaign filed an ethics complaint with the Secretary of State’s Office that CHILE PAC hadn’t registered with the state or filed finance reports. (Imagine an outfit sitting on millions in dark money complaining about a trifling $4,500 spent on the spot.) Still, I credit the organizers for reminding us that this is about sick, troubled people.
We meet Gib Lovell, whose son Caleb is schizophrenic. After the state’s closure of Caleb’s accustomed provider, the new provider cut back on treatment and services. Lovell built a six-foot wall around his property. “If Caleb has a bad day,” he said, “I can keep my son out of harm’s way.”
We meet the mother of Lawrence Lopez, who was a good student. “One day he wasn’t Lawrence anymore,” she said. He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. “He pushed me. I called police because I couldn’t control him. He needs to be in a place where he can get help.”
The new agency sends a different person over every time to give Lawrence his meds. “Southwest Counseling was always there. I could pick up the phone at 2 a.m.” The new provider doesn’t even call back.
Said one former client, “It’s easier for me to die than it is to get help.”
People tormented by invisible demons build relationships with trusted counselors, and interruptions in this kind of care cause them to lose ground. That was one point of “Breakdown.” Other points: Families need help. The Arizona providers don’t measure up. HSD had other options.
They’re valid points, and we’ve heard them before. But we can’t finish the discussion because Martinez and her opponent, Gary King, have kept the investigation under wraps.
AG candidate Hector Balderas said he doesn’t see why King didn’t open up the investigation. Balderas has spoken up despite directives, I imagine, from the state Democratic Party chairman to avoid breathing a negative word about each other.
The behavioral health crisis has become the monster in the closet. One side assures us it’s there, the other that we’re imagining things.
Lately, the AG’s Office reveals that OptumHealth New Mexico, which helped instigate the audit that led to the funding suspensions, destroyed and falsified its own records of appeals and grievances. Several of the Arizona providers have laid off workers or cut salaries.
HSD says it’s serving more people than it was the year before, and legislators respond, how well? Two providers have been cleared of fraud. One Arizona company billed the state for work in preparing for the transition months ahead of the audit.
Last week I spoke with two mental health professionals. “We were in Arizona months before any of this happened. People we knew told us, ‘We’re going to be working in New Mexico.’ We said, ‘You can’t just go into communities like Española – those are very tight communities. They said, ‘We’ll be in those communities.’”
One thing we can say about whatever’s in the closet: it smells.