Alibi V.28 No.25 • June 20-26, 2019 

Idiot Box

Mental Health Disorder

“The Shake-Up” on PBS

This “Idiot Box” space is normally reserved for all the brainless, silly and sorta entertaining things television does for us. But occasionally the medium is capable of more. Every once in a while, it serves an educational purpose and contributes to the community at large. By way of example, there’s New Mexico PBS’ upcoming documentary about our state’s behavioral health crisis, “The Shake-Up.” It’s as gripping a piece of investigative journalism as you could hope for and should be essential viewing for anyone concerned with or impacted by the field of mental health.

“The Shake-Up” is the work of Ben Altenberg, a documentary filmmaker originally from Albuquerque currently living in Austin, Texas. Altenberg spent several years working as a videographer for various public health and education nonprofits in New Mexico, single-handedly producing public service announcements, educational videos and promotional videos for small businesses in need. This gives him some serious insight into the issues discussed in “The Shake-Up.”

“The Shake-Up” takes us back to 2013 when New Mexico’s Human Services Department called together the heads of all 15 local behavioral health care providers. In this meeting—voice recordings of which are strung throughout the documentary—the agencies were informed that an internal audit found all 15 of them guilty of serious fraud. The findings, needless to say, shocked the various agencies in attendance. All their funding was immediately terminated, but—to add insult to injury—they were all still “contractually required” to continue providing services to their clients. Needless to say, most of them went out of business, cutting off much-needed mental health services to thousands of New Mexico’s most vulnerable citizens.

Nancy Jo Archer, director of Hogares, Inc., is one of the main interviewees here. She estimates that 25,000 children and adolescents—most of them low income—were serviced by her agency over the years. Patients who were impacted by the sudden closures are interviewed, of course. But the most affecting testimony comes from the providers themselves, all of whom are clearly still shaken by their inability to help clients.

As it turns out, the audit—which the HSD fought tooth and nail to keep hidden from the public—was the work of OptimHealth, a national healthcare-providing corporation that—surprise, surprise—was given the exclusive contract to run all behavioral healthcare in New Mexico following the shutdown of the 15 local agencies. By 2016 Attorney General Hector Balderas had cleared all 15 agencies of the bogus fraud charges and the out-of-town corporations running behavioral healthcare in New Mexico had basically abandoned the state as “unprofitable.” But the damage was done.

Altenberg’s film has a funereal air about it. This is not a happy story. The director of one of the local agencies talks with raw emotion about the seven young clients of hers who were lost to suicide during the OptimHealth years. Clearly these are people who care. And if there’s one ray of hope in this entire tragic story, it’s that many of these dedicated providers are still around, doing whatever they can to help those in New Mexico struggling with mental health issues. Hopefully “The Shake-Up” will serve as a warning about the potentially dangerous connections between government, for-profit corporations and healthcare.

“The Shake-Up” premieres Friday, June 21, at 9pm on KNME-5.