More than 1,500 patients, many in rural areas, will need new mental health providers when Valle del Sol closes its nine New Mexico clinics at the end of July.
A spokeswoman for the nonprofit group said moving the patients to other clinicians is the organization’s top concern. The company and state government are in talks with other providers to fill the hole, she said.
The clinics also have a total of 70 full-time employees, some of whom will find work with other agencies because of the demand for mental health counselors, said Angela Florez. Florez said temporary clinic closures over the past year due to the coronavirus weakened Valle del Sol’s finances in New Mexico.
The news is a blow to New Mexico mental health services, which have fought to recover from a clash eight years ago between the state and behavioral health providers over Medicaid compensation.
That conflict led to payouts of at least $12.7 million to behavioral service entities that were found to be unfairly accused by state leaders, including then-Gov. Susana Martinez, of bilking Medicaid. People were laid off and entities closed during the conflict. Communities were shaken.
Valle del Sol was one of five companies the state brought in from Arizona to try to fill the gaps caused by the dispute. Neal Bowen, director of New Mexico’s Behavioral Health Services Division, said that, including Valle del Sol, four of those will have departed from New Mexico.
Bowen nevertheless said he felt mental health services in New Mexico have improved over the past four years. New providers and telehealth services have strengthened coverage, he said.
Bowen and others said discussions with existing mental health providers indicate they will step in and take care of the patients.
“It’s certainly a challenge,” he said. “Of course it’s a blow.” He said he was most concerned about getting behavioral health professionals to the most “frontier and rural” areas.
Renee Edwards, senior clinical operations director for Valle del Sol of New Mexico, mentioned “historical trauma from what happened in 2013” as lingering. She said small communities were rocked by it and still worry about losing service.
Rural mental health care is a challenge nationwide. The federal government said more than two years ago that 90 million people live in places officially called “mental health professional shortage areas.”
It would take 4,000 to 6,000 more professionals to serve those people and places, the National Association of County Behavioral Health and Developmental Disability Directors said in a 2019 newsletter.
Valle del Sol continued to provide service by telehealth during the closures, Florez said, but some rural patients faced technological challenges and connection problems.
Taos Town Manager Rick Bellis said Thursday that Valle del Sol has been a good organization. The group has a clinic in Taos.
“In a rural community, you’ve got severe problems and no resources, and people have to travel” for counseling, Bellis said. “The hospitals tend to be the places of last resort.”
Florez said Valle del Sol will work with the state, Presbyterian Medical Services, New Mexico Solutions, Golden Willow and others to pick up the services her company will leave behind. Those services are generally of the outpatient variety.
Albuquerque-based New Mexico Solutions will “support the state in identifying strategies to preserve those services to those clients in need,” spokeswoman Tara McCormick said.
Florez said the company has been proud to serve New Mexicans.
“We’re really grateful for the opportunity to serve New Mexican patients,” she said. Leaving “was not an easy decision by any means. And we just want to make sure that we’re doing right by the New Mexican communities that we serve.”
Besides Taos, the group has operations in Bernalillo, Grants, Moriarty, Santa Rosa, Raton, Española, Los Lunas and Clayton.
Edwards said the announcement came Tuesday afternoon, shaking staffers. “We had our moment of tears and fears and frustration together, but they’re strong,” she said. She said most of the locations have more than one mental health provider.
“I think it’s going to be OK,” she said. “There’s overwhelming support.”
Bowen said he was well aware of the challenge of getting adequate mental health programs to rural communities. He spent close to 15 years working as a psychologist and administrator in Silver City and Lordsburg.
His expertise was in demand in those communities. “I never felt any need to advertise,” he said.