Film explores 2013 behavioral health shakeup in New Mexico
Filmmaker Ben Altenberg had just moved from Albuquerque to Austin, Texas, when a friend told him about an unusual political situation that was hurting untold numbers of vulnerable people across New Mexico.
It was the great behavioral health shakeup of 2013, one of the biggest controversies of then-Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration. Her Human Services Department cut off Medicaid payments to 15 mental health providers after an outside audit purportedly found credible evidence of fraud.
The providers were replaced by five Arizona companies hired on no-bid emergency contracts. In many cases, this disrupted or delayed treatment for substance abuse or mental health services to low-income New Mexicans.
And many of the accused New Mexico providers were forced to close. Hundreds of people lost their jobs.
The allegations of fraud later fell apart. Following a three-year investigation, state Attorney General Hector Balderas announced that, although his investigators found some regulatory violations, “there did not appear to be a pattern of fraud” for any of the providers and that those providers owed Medicaid only a fraction of the $36 million Martinez’s administration originally had claimed.
“I’d worked in public health before I left New Mexico, and this was so shocking,” Altenberg said in a phone interview last week.
He’d been looking for a subject for a documentary and this seemed to fit the bill. Not only was there a political story to explore, Altenberg said, there was a bigger, more consequential side to it: “How it’s affecting people.”
And thus was born Shake-Up, a documentary that Altenberg says will air later this year on KNME as well as the other two PBS television stations in New Mexico. The film premiered in February at the Las Cruces Film Festival.
A screening of the hourlong film at the National Hispanic Cultural Center is scheduled for Saturday, followed by a panel discussion featuring Altenberg, new Human Services Secretary David Scrase, behavioral health providers and others.
For the documentary, Altenberg said he interviewed government officials, mental health professionals, including providers who lost their funding because of the audit and — most importantly — patients affected by the upheaval.
“Getting providers to talk wasn’t a problem,” he said. “A lot of them are still angry. But it’s really hard finding patients to talk.”
Altenberg said he went to several New Mexico communities, including Santa Fe, Santa Rosa and Clayton.
“I met a woman in Clayton who is the foster mother of eight kids,” he said. “All of her kids need medication and therapy.” After the only provider for behavioral health services for children in her town shut down, she contacted the state about where to to go. Altenberg said the woman, who runs a store, was told, “You can drive to Raton.”
Raton is more than 75 miles from Clayton.
One of the people interviewed in the film was Ralph Moya, a retired clinical social worker and a Tucumcari city commissioner who volunteers to help those with mental health issues, traveling all around northeastern New Mexico to treat people. In a television interview this year, Altenberg said Moya was the only trained social worker for 11,000 square miles in northeastern New Mexico.
Moya had “burned out” for a few years, but after the shake-up got back in the game, Altenberg said, explaining, “Once the system fell apart, he felt something deep down.”
Martinez, who left office at the end of her second term last year, continuously defended her Human Services Department’s actions that caused the shake-up.
“To be perfectly clear, no abuse of our system will be accepted or tolerated,” a Martinez spokesman said in 2017. “More New Mexicans are receiving behavioral health services than ever before.”
An increase in the number of people receiving such services coincided with a sharp increase in the number of New Mexicans enrolled in the state’s Medicaid program following its expansion under the Affordable Care Act.
But that was little comfort to patients who lost their therapists in 2013.
“What happens when you take away these services is that people just kind of go away,” David Ley, executive director of New Mexico Solutions, a mental health service in Albuquerque, says in the trailer for the film. “They say, ‘Well, I guess I didn’t need that service, or I guess I don’t deserve that service.’ Or else they just quietly disappear.”
On the web
• Watch a trailer for the film Shake-up, which documents the yearslong effects of the 2013 shake-up of New Mexico’s behavioral health system for Medicaid patients, at vimeo.com/309181705.