Click to Print
Diane-Moore-AS
Diane Moore, a former DOH employee who blew the whistle on alleged wrongdoing in the department, recently settled with the state.

Now Hiring?

Vacancies at the NM Department of Health raise concerns

December 21, 2011, 12:00 am

As a sizable number of positions in the Department of Health remain unfilled, critics say they’re empty for a reason. 


Nearly 20 percent of positions within the Public Health Division are currently vacant, according to the DOH. The number of empty positions totals 30 percent in the division’s northern New Mexico region alone, the highest in the state. 


In some areas, vacancy rates are even higher among the positions that directly treat sick patients. In the western New Mexico region, for instance, four out of five nurse practitioner and doctor positions are currently unfilled.  


“We’re concerned about it,” state Rep. Danice Picraux, D-Albuquerque, tells SFR. “I think we’ve hurt public health.” 


At a Dec. 7 public health forum in Albuquerque, state Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Bernalillo, says she heard from a number of public health employees who are taking on extra work because of the vacancies. Feldman, who chairs the Legislative Health and Human Services committee, says public health initiatives like tobacco-cessation programs and diabetes-prevention campaigns have been hit hardest in the past few years.


“These are the programs easiest to cut when times are tough,” she tells SFR. 


In a state with the highest drug-related overdoses and the second-highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation, the squeezed budget for preventive health programs is worrisome—and some critics blame first-year Secretary Catherine Torres, a pediatrician with no previous state government experience, whom Gov. Susana Martinez appointed in February. 


The most recent complaints paint a picture of a DOH rife with bullying and intimidation under Torres.
“I hear a lot of criticism of her,” state Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Bernalillo, who also serves on the Health and Human Services committee, tells SFR. 


The criticism amounts to an “ineptness and an autocratic approach” coming from those in charge of the department, Ortiz y Pino says. He ties it to Torres’ lack of experience managing an organization comparable to the size of DOH, which encompasses roughly 4,500 state positions.  


When Torres assumed her DOH leadership role in February, she inherited a department muddled in past controversies over allegations of nepotistic hiring practices and million-dollar accounting errors, among others [cover story, Jan. 13, 2010: “DOH!”]. Online comments from a recent SFR story on the DOH insinuate that things have only gotten worse [news, Dec. 7: “Department of Help”].


“Mrs. Torres has ripped the heart out of DOH and plopped it in the middle of her new logo,” writes one commenter who claims to be a DOH staffer. Another commenter, posting as the “Collective Voice of DOH,” writes a lengthy “open letter” to Torres that criticizes her for screaming at employees, gutting programs and stalling contracts. 


“I think that’s typical when people are in over their heads,” Ortiz y Pino says. “I’m not surprised [Torres] would resort to a ‘Do it because I said so’ approach.”


DOH spokeswoman Aimee Barabe tells SFR that she’s never witnessed Torres yelling or intimidating staff. She also says the vacancies are being addressed, but couldn’t say how before press time. Torres declined to speak with SFR before press time.


The evidence of sickness at the DOH, however, extends beyond anonymous web complaints—and into the courts. In October, the state reached a paid settlement with former DOH employee Diane Moore, who sued the department in 2009 for fraud and nepotistic hiring practices. On Dec. 9, according to local news reports, current HIV services employee Jennifer Smith filed a lawsuit alleging financial mismanagement and employee retaliation. 


Before being nominated for the secretary position, Torres, a pediatrician for two decades, was medical director at First Step Pediatrics in Las Cruces from 2005-2009. She was also nationally recognized for her work on improving the health of people in need living near the Mexican border. 


“They knew each other in Las Cruces from child abuse cases that they worked on together,” governor spokesman Greg Blair, referring to Martinez and Torres, tells SFR. “It was mostly just a working relationship.” 


Feldman, who sits on the senate committee in charge of vetting governor-appointed candidates before the state senate votes to confirm them, says the Torres confirmation followed a “senatorial courtesy” to follow through with a new administration’s appointments. 


“She was a doctor,” Feldman says. “That was a plus.” 


But to Ortiz y Pino, Torres’ credentials don’t necessarily confer the ability to manage the state’s largest agency. (Despite current vacancy rates, the DOH’s budget request for fiscal year 2013 is similar to last year’s budget, asking for roughly $532 million from the state, approximately $1 million less than the department requested in FY 2012.)


He says he now regrets voting to confirm Torres for DOH secretary.


“In retrospect, there’s some questions I should have asked,” Ortiz y Pino says. 


He says he’ll likely be asking about the vacancies in hearings during next month’s legislative session.

 

 
12.22.2011 at 02:26 | Reply |

DOH Guys,

I got this in my personal email. I laughed. Enjoy!

 

http://s1198.photobucket.com/albums/aa452/dohcrisis/?action=view&current=NMHealth.png

 

 

12.22.2011 at 06:01 | Reply |

DOH Public,

Great idea to share. Not much to really laugh about lately in the Runnels building. I am sure some folks will get a smirk out of it. Some divisions have even been discouraged from talking to other employees in the hallways. People are getting more bold from what I see. Even my friends who have left DOH are afraid to speak out as to not jepordize people still in the department.

Joey,

Thank you for your reporting. You have done a great service to not only DOH employees but NM citizens.

Here are some interesting numbers:

NM Unemployment (Nov 2011): 6.6%

DOH Job Vacancy: 19%

That's nearly three times the state numbers.

 

 

12.24.2011 at 01:11 | Reply |

Hey everyone!  This article was in the Journal a few days ago.  Not exactly investigative journalism like here but shows more of the same trend!  I am sure more suits are to follow.

State Health Department Sued by Employee
By Journal Staff Report on Mon, Dec 19, 2011 at 9:05 am

A state Health Department worker has sued her employers, alleging that they ignored her efforts to correct financial mismanagement and other problems in the department’s HIV Services Program.

The worker, Jennifer Smith, also says in the lawsuit that her personal medical information was leaked to co-workers, and that she was subjected to an abusive boss and a hostile work environment.

Health Department spokeswoman Aimee Barabe said Friday she could not comment on litigation involving the department. Smith still works for the department, Barabe said.

The lawsuit, filed in Santa Fe District Court Dec. 9, said Smith began reporting problems with federal funding and accounting in the program shortly after she began working at the department in 2006.

The mismanagement included failures to compensate providers, missing budget information, failure to file reports with federal grant providers and more.

Her suit says providers in the HIV program were undercompensated by $81,741 in June 2008 and by $316,941 in June 2009. It also says mistakes in monitoring client eligibility and seeking medication rebates cost the state $600,000 in potential revenue.

The mismanagement resulted in the state not having enough money for HIV medications at one point, and also meant that some federal funds for the program were not spent. Federal health officials finally ordered a multi-year audit of the program earlier this year, the suit says.

Smith also said in the lawsuit that her boss, HIV Services Program Manager Diane Tapia, was verbally abusive and even threatened to kill her. At one point, Tapia also tried to prevent Smith from accessing federal websites necessary to her job.

When Smith reported Tapia’s actions to higher-ups in the department, and also alerted them to the recurring budget and accounting problems, she was ignored, court documents said.

Smith also claims Tapia and other health department officials were careless with computer passwords, with the result that Smith’s co-workers gained access to private information about her health.

Smith’s lawsuit seeks compensation under the state’s whistle-blower protection act. The suit says the hostile work environment she was subjected to based on retaliation was “severe and pervasive, causing a material alteration in Smith’s employment” and that her professional reputation was tarnished.

 

12.24.2011 at 03:55 | Reply |

Aimee,

Shame on you! They don’t pay you enough to lie unless $65k/year is your price. It is sickening to see that you are helping Mrs. Torres bully and intimidate DOH. Have you forgotten the times we have seen you crying after leaving her office? Fourth floor walls aren't exactly sound proof either. Have you forgotten the times that you have witnessed her cruelty to us? Up until now we have viewed you as a victim in all of this mess.

 Elvis said it best, "Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t goin’ away.”  

 

12.25.2011 at 12:30

Thank You! Someone had to finally come out and say it. I read this story on Wednesday and the quote from Aimee has bothered me ever since. I use to have some respect for her but to lie is unforgiveable.  Sometimes saying nothing is better than betraying yourself and others.  Welcome to the Darkside.

 

12.29.2011 at 03:59 | Reply |
I personally witnessed Aimee being verbally abused by Dr. Torres. It's a shame she chooses to lie and help cover up this wretched behavior. If she will lie to the media about this what else will she lie about? Public information is a joke now. It takes weeks months and sometimes never to get approved to even talk to the public. I was told Dr. Torres now has to even approve presentations. DOH does not even send out press releases or the Saludos staff newsletter anymore. I'm ashamed to be associated with this department and the Governor for failing the public by allowing this bully to continue her rampage.

 

 
 
Close
Close
Close