3 local agencies owe state $2 million

First Posted: 1/15/2009

LUMBERTON — Three local mental health service providers owe more than $2 million to the state, according to a recent series of articles by the Raleigh News & Observer.
Primary Health Choice Inc., Associate Behavioral Services Inc., and Southeastern Behavioral Healthcare were all listed among the top 20 agencies in North Carolina that owe the state more than $59 million combined for overcharges or services not performed. Detailed messages that were left with all three agencies seeking comment for this story were not returned.
The N&O series highlights problems with the state’s mental health program after the General Assembly decided to turn over the bulk of care to private providers. According to the N&O:
— Primary Health Choice Inc. owes the state a balance of $603,140.70, of a total $1,505,610.96 requested for pay back.
— Associate Behavioral Services Inc. owes a balance of $791,206.91, of a total $930,854.72.
— Southeastern Behavioral Healthcare owes a balance of $691,092.43, of a total $905,754.42.
“The program was poorly planned and administered and a lack of oversight led to one bad apple spoiling the rest of the barrel … We do have good providers,” said state Sen. David Weinstein, a Lumberton Democrat. “… We’ve had some people who took advantage of the system, but we have a lot of providers who are doing a good job, in my opinion.”
Weinstein said the mental health mess has gotten the attention of legislators, who have hired a new mental health director, Dempsey Benton, to straighten out the mess.
“He will put a plan in place to get this situation under control,” Weinstein said.
John Campbell, a member of the Board of Education, is the community relations director of Community Innovations Inc. in Lumberton, which provides mental health services. He is hopeful the system can be repaired.
“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Campbell said. “It will be a challenge and take a long-time commitment, and it’ll take listening not only to just the politicians and state employees, but to the people in the trenches … . They must talk to those people on the front lines who provide the direct care.”
Campbell has a background in case management through 20 years of social work.
“Mental-health changes in North Carolina were intended to improve community treatment and give taxpayers good value, but according to the News & Observer, they have done neither,” Campbell said. “They report that providers took clients shopping, swimming and to movies for $61 an hour … .”
Campbell is concerned that the good guys are getting tainted.
“Yes, there are some problems, and yes, there are some abuses, but at the same time there are some of us who are not on that list, or many with minor mistakes made,” he said. “… I hate to see all of the private mental health providers be painted with the brush that we’re all out for the bottom line — because that is not true.”
North Carolina officials are trying to recover $59 million owed from companies that they believe broke the rules in providing a mental health service called community support, The News & Observer reported.
According to the N&O, workers from local mental-health offices reviewed client records on 493 companies last year and found problems that included minor issues, such paperwork errors, to larger issues, such as thousands of people getting community support even though they didn’t need it. The state started community support in 2006 as a way to move treatment from government offices to people’s homes, schools and community centers. The federal government ruled the program qualified for Medicaid funding.
In the first three months, through June 2006, 277 companies received taxpayer money to provide community support. By the end of 2007, the number had nearly tripled to 784.
Benton said the rules to qualify for the program were lax.
“When community support got started, the threshold for qualification was pretty low,” Benton told the News & Observer. “It’s the state’s responsibility to set the standards for providers. We’re trying to catch up in that part of the program.”

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