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Vacancies at the NM Department of Health raise concerns

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.

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