Behavioral-Health Reform or Political Theater?


This week’s “#NMspeaksCrisis Town Hall” could have provided a valuable exploration of the most promising ways to fix the Land of Enchantment’s behavioral-health system.

But it didn’t.

Sponsored by “Generation Justice,” which trains “teens to approach journalism and broadcasting from a social justice framework,” the event was held at the KiMo Theater in downtown Albuquerque. New Mexico PBS lent a hand, and a plethora of far-left organizations — e.g., the Southwest Organizing Project, New Mexico Voices for Children — were “partners and collaborators.”

The low point of the event was a recorded poem by Hakim Bellamy, the “inaugural Poet Laureate of Albuquerque.” Rest assured, income inequality and “climate change” got mentions.

But the town hall’s main purpose was to bash the Martinez administration’s 2013 decision to suspend Medicaid payments to 15 behavioral-health providers it accused of overbilling errors, and possibly fraud. Time has not been kind to the move. Three years later, no one’s gone to jail, and as the Albuquerque Journal recently reported, “13 of the 15 providers shut down by the Human Services Department in 2013 — many of them since forced out of business — have been exonerated of fraud.”

But rather than focus on where to go from here, the “#NMspeaksCrisis Town Hall” went for political points. Bernalillo County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins was on hand, as was State Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino and State Rep. Deborah Armstrong. All three are Democrats. Also appearing were staffers from the offices of U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, and U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham — again, all Democrats. Lujan Grisham herself appeared via a video message, and charged that the suspension of Medicaid payments was “the most egregious abuse of power I have seen in my decades of government service.” There was lots of love for the legislation being pushed by Democrats in the congressional delegation to “require consideration of the impact on beneficiary access to care and to enhance due process protections in procedures for suspending payments to Medicaid providers.” The Bernalillo County Commission’s 2015 vote to hike the county’s gross receipts to generate more revenue for behavioral health received thunderous applause.

The “#NMspeaksCrisis Town Hall” was a silly, politicized disgrace, and did a great disservice to the many New Mexicans who suffer from mental problems. Fortunately, some rationality and nonpartisanship is coming to behavioral health in New Mexico. The Rio Grande Foundation has launched an initiative to investigate ways to make the system more efficient and accountable. In the months to come, look for our research, analysis, and suggestions for reforms. We won’t be carrying water for professional politicians, and we won’t be advocating even higher taxes as a “solution.” There are promising policy options — some are making progress in Texas — and the Foundation looks forward to exploring how to tailor them to our state.