Department of Help

Former employees say vacancy and intimidation overwhelm DOH

When Andrea Alano submitted her resignation to the Medical Cannabis Program in late November, she was the last of the program's permanent staffers to resign.

Within a six-week period, Alano, Program Manager Dominick Zurlo and coordinator Donna Armijo had all quit [, Dec. 2: "Final Medical Cannabis Program Staffer Resigns"].

The three staffers couldn't be reached by SFR, but Melissa Milam, the former head of the program, says they "couldn't take it anymore."

"This is not an anomaly," Milam tells SFR. "This is a pattern of [DOH Secretary] Catherine Torres running off good people from the Department of Health."

DOH spokeswoman Aimee Barabe denies this and says each staffer made his or her own decision to resign. But to some observers, it was yet another example of Gov. Susana Martinez' abandonment of the program. To others, it is evidence of a backlash against much more than one program within the Department of Health. Miles Conway, a political coordinator with the Communications Workers of America, says the administration is targeting the entire DOH, in which vacancies are currently widespread.

"It's hard to imagine there's not some deliberate strategy to set the Department of Health to fail," Conway tells SFR.

Conway cites the 396 DOH vacancies within his union, which represents more than 1,000 state health employees, as an example. Similarly, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 1,100 state health employees, estimates its DOH positions are at a 30 percent vacancy rate. AFSCME spokesman Jakob Schiller adds that DOH vacancies are "definitely" on the rise.

Conway says the state is trying, via ongoing contract negotiations with CWA, to outsource many state jobs to the private sector [news, Nov. 30: "Tense Talks"]. As an example, he points to Martinez' efforts to hire contractors in the Public Education Department after firing 33 PED employees in June.

Barabe couldn't confirm the DOH's total number of vacancies, and the governor's office didn't return SFR's phone calls or emails before press time.

To many, the DOH's vacancy rates are causing problems.

"I'm hearing that things have never been as dismal as they are now," state Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Bernalillo, who serves on the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee, tells SFR.

Bruce Trigg, the former medical director for the sexually transmitted disease program for regions 1 and 3, which include Albuquerque and Santa Fe, echoes Ortiz y Pino's sentiment.

"The system is completely crumbling," Trigg, who retired last December, tells SFR.

The DOH's many vacancies mean serious public health problems, such as STDs and drug addiction, are going untreated, Trigg says. In Albuquerque, he says, the Stanford Public Health Office stopped giving out morphine treatment to heroin addicts in jail, a program with which he used to work. The DOH took nearly a year to fill his position, he says.

Trigg is also highly critical of the DOH's recent return of nearly $4.2 million to the state's general fund.
"They boast that they can give back $4.5 million," Trigg tells SFR. "But how can they not say what is being done at the department?"

Barabe says returns to the general fund are common for every state agency. Last year, the DOH returned a similar amount to the state.

But Ortiz y Pino shares Trigg's criticism.

"It would be like public schools returning money when they're not doing what we asked them to do," he says.

Trigg says many of the open positions are tied to a top-down culture of intimidation that's prompting staffers like Patty Alsberge, a former clerk specialist with the DOH Children's Medical Services program, to quit. Alsberge left her job this past spring after claiming her superiors had retaliated against her. According to emails obtained by SFR, Alsberge's alleged offense involved riding as a passenger in a state-owned car that was left running in the DOH parking lot.

In April, Alsberge rode passenger while her co-worker drove and eventually parked a Nissan Altima near DOH offices. According to Alsberge, she and the driver locked the doors, mistakenly thinking the car, a hybrid with a push-button ignition, was turned off.

Two weeks later, Alsberge was put on administrative leave. She says she wasn't given a chance to tell her side of the story to her bosses.

"There's a process when employees get in trouble," Alsberge tells SFR. "Your immediate supervisor is supposed to have a sit-down conversation with you. That didn't happen."

A lengthy grievance process followed the suspension, and Alsberge spent most of the spring getting the incident removed from her record. By July, she had had enough and left the DOH. Her former position remains unfilled, she says.

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