The state Human Services Department announced Friday that Neal Bowen, a psychologist in New Mexico for more than 14 years, has been appointed director of the Behavioral Health Services Division.
Bowen replaces Wayne Lindstom, who resigned in May after serving about six years. Bowen will start in mid-November at an annual salary of $93,000, according to the state government’s online Sunshine Portal.
He’ll lead a division with a current fiscal year budget of more than $856 million in federal and state funding to disburse to providers across New Mexico.
Work in Sri Lanka inspired his decision to pursue a doctorate in psychology and study trauma, Bowen said in an interview.
After graduating in 2002 from the University of Texas at Austin, he worked at the University of Washington for several years, teaching about trauma and treatment in multicultural settings. In 2005, he began working at Hidalgo Medical Services in Lordsburg, where he has remained.
When Bowen started working at Hidalgo Medical Services, its mental health department was staffed with one part-time social worker. But with new grant funding, the program started to expand. For a year, Hidalgo has operated Tu Casa, a substance abuse treatment organization that has more than 240 employees and provides services at 19 sites across Grant and Hidalgo counties.
In a news release Friday, Human Services Secretary David Scrase said Bowen’s work as a behavioral health provider will attract more providers to the state.
“[The division’s] first goal is to rebuild the behavioral health provider network in the state of New Mexico, and we believe that Dr. Bowen is exactly the right person for the job,” Scrase said.
He was referring to the state’s ongoing efforts to address the effects of a 2013 shake-up of behavioral health services for low-income patients in New Mexico’s Medicaid program following a decision by then-Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration to freeze reimbursements for 15 providers, accusing them of fraudulent billing practices.
The action was based on an independent audit that found a combined $6 million in possible Medicaid overbilling.
Years later, the Attorney General’s Office cleared all of the providers of any criminal wrongdoing, but many of them had been forced out of business by then.
Bowen experienced the shake-up firsthand. The area served by Hidalgo Medical Services lost one core service agency and one clinic that shared broad responsibility for people suffering from the most severe mental illnesses, he said. Both were among those accused of fraud and were crippled by suspension of their Medicaid payments.
The loss of service was palpable in the community, Bowen said, adding that he remembers seeing people in the streets and at Hidalgo Medical Services without support.
“After that, our referral rate never dropped again,” he said. “I saw the number of seriously mentally ill people on our streets go up. I saw patients who need ongoing care and therapy not get it in a timely way. It had a pretty dramatic impact on our communities and our families.”