Roundhouse

Members of a New Mexico Human Services Department subcommittee banned the public this week from the panel’s discussions about potential rate cuts to Medicaid-funded health care providers as they scramble to plug a potential $417 million shortage.

An agenda of the Provider Payments Cost-Containment Subcommittee shows that its members discussed an “open meetings decision” on March 18 just after making introductions and welcoming one another. With that vote, the public was prohibited from attending this week’s meeting.

The decision drew sharp criticism from influential state Sen. John Arthur Smith, who said the department should have been more forthcoming about a state Medicaid budget that he called “a mess.”

“I think those meetings should be wide open,” Smith said.

The department shot back in an email Friday that blasted lawmakers for an “underfunded” Medicaid program.

Brent Earnest, Cabinet secretary of the state Human Services Department, had told lawmakers on the Legislative Finance Committee earlier this week that details about potential cuts to Medicaid would come from three subcommittees created by the department’s full Medicaid Advisory Committee.

But such details proved hard to come by on Thursday, when members of the Payments Cost-Containment Subcommittee met in a conference room in a state building. Wayne Lindstrom, of the state government’s Behavioral Health Collaborative, told a New Mexican reporter that the subcommittee decided to hold a closed meeting in order to have more frank discussions.

Smith, a Democrat from Deming who chairs the Legislative Finance Committee, said the Human Services Department has been “very vague in what they’re doing” with the Medicaid budget. The subcommittee’s closed meeting leaves the public further in the dark, Smith said.

Kyler Nerison, a spokesman for the Human Services Department, said in an email Friday that the department “takes its duty seriously and is committed to adhering to the budget passed by the Legislature in an open and transparent way.”

Nerison added that the department looks “forward to Sen. John Arthur Smith opening up Democratic caucus meetings when they discuss Medicaid, as well as releasing all of their emails to the public.”

Neither Democratic or Republican caucuses in the Legislature are open to the public.

Nerison has not provided a list of members of the subcommittee who voted to close the meeting.

Susan Boe, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said the department subcommittees might be subject to the open-meetings law that provides for public access, depending on the nature of the discussions and whether members make substantive policy decisions. But if the discussions don’t affect state policy, the committee may be able to close meetings to the public.

Either way, Boe said that it’s generally better for such committees to err on the side of transparency.

Nerison said policy decisions aren’t being made in the subcommittee’s closed meetings. “It’s important to know that the Medicaid Advisory Committee and its subcommittees cannot make policy decisions; therefore, both state law and the committee’s bylaws allow them to hold meetings that aren’t open to the public,” he said. “Any policy recommendations they make will be presented at a meeting of the full Medicaid Advisory Committee, which will be open to the public as all of their meetings are.”

Larry Martinez, chairman of the Medicaid Advisory Committee and regional director for Presbyterian Medical Services, agreed that it is up to the individual subcommittees to decide whether to open meetings to the public. He said they are allowed to close the meetings because the committees are strictly advisory and don’t have any legal authority over the taxpayer-funded program.

The Human Services Department is responsible for appointing members of the Medicaid Advisory Committee. That committee is composed of health care industry representatives, advocates for impoverished people and state officials. Its meetings have been open to the public.

New Mexico has a Medicaid budget of approximately $6 billion, which has been growing since Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration expanded the program in 2014. That’s close to the cost of funding the entire state government, but New Mexico currently only pays about $1.1 billion into Medicaid. Federal taxpayers cover the remaining costs.

Cabinet Secretary Earnest has said he will seek a supplemental appropriation for Medicaid from the Legislature. But state lawmakers worry that cash won’t be available because they exhausted reserves to balance this year’s budget.

Justin Horwath can be reached at 505-986-3017 or jhorwath@sfnewmexican.com.