Judge says state can keep audit secret

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) — The state can keep secret an audit that prompted it to freeze payments to providers of mental health and substance abuse treatment, a state district judge ruled Thursday.

Judge Douglas Driggers rejected a request by the Las Cruces Sun-News and New Mexico In Depth to order the Human Services Department to release the audit under state open records laws. But he did leave open the possibility of a new hearing in six months to see if more of the 300-page document can be released later.

News organizations and government watchdog groups have been requesting the audit, but only small portions have been released.

The Human Services Department claims the audit found overbilling and questionable business practices by the providers of Medicaid behavioral health services, so it cut funding to 14 of the nonprofits and brought in Arizona firms to take over a dozen of them.

Attorney General Gary King’s office is investigating potential fraud. It also has declined to release most of the audit, contending the materials are law enforcement records protected from disclosure under the open records law.

In a separate lawsuit brought by the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, a state district court judge in Santa Fe agreed Tuesday to review the audit to determine if more sections should be made public under the Inspection of Public Records Act.

Legislators have sharply criticized Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration for not giving providers a chance to respond to the allegations before freezing their Medicaid payments. Lawmakers and some providers also have expressed concerns that mental health services will be disrupted, although the department has contracted with Arizona companies to take over for some of the suspended providers.

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