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JOY Center expects new contract with state soon

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The executive director of the Chaves County JOY Centers says she is hopeful that the long reimbursement delays will end now that the state has taken over payment processes. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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The head of the Chaves County JOY Centers expects to receive a new contract with the state as soon as the New Mexico Aging and Long-Term Services Department takes over reimbursing providers for services to senior citizens, at least on a temporary basis.

“They are working on putting contracts in place so that providers will be at peace of mind that we will have a contract directly with the Aging and Long-Term Services Department,” said Monica Duran, executive director of the four JOY Centers in the county.

Although the JOY Center is still “in limbo” at this moment without a contract with the state in hand, Duran said she thinks one will be provided in the coming weeks.

The Aging department announced in December that it would terminate its contract with the Non-Metro Area Agency on Aging by Feb.1, a move that Non-Metro has protested and that has drawn the request of an investigation by a Congressional leader from New Mexico.

Non-Metro, a division of the North Central New Mexico Economic Development District, is one of four Area Agencies on Aging in the state that acts as an intermediary between senior services providers and the state department. One agency covers Bernalillo County, two cover tribal communities and Non-Metro had covered the remainder of the state.

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This year, the heads of many senior services providers across the state, including Duran, had complained of significant delays in reimbursements by Non-Metro that had, in some instances, caused financial difficulties for operations. Duran had said that the delays meant that a few JOY Center employees had received their pay weeks late on a couple of occasions.

During a Nov. 15 Legislative Finance Committee meeting, two state legislators told Aging Department Acting Secretary Kyky Knowles that reimbursement problems had been reported by providers in many counties, and an LFC program evaluator said during that meeting that an audit of Non-Metro’s financial statements by the Department of Finance and Administration had uncovered a $337,000 bookkeeping discrepancy.

The state department said it will contract directly with senior services providers for at least six months while a review of Non-Metro services and finances occurs. Public hearings and comments would be required before a final decision to “de-designate” could occur, the Aging Department stated in a Tuesday news release.

Duran said that the state department has done a good job of handling the transition so far.

“Up to this point, it has been positive in that they have communicated and they have answered the questions that we have had,” said Duran. “It sounds to me like they have a plan. It is definitely going to be a huge change for all of us, but it doesn’t sound like there should be an interruption in services.”

Duran said the JOY Center just received its November reimbursement from Non-Metro Wednesday, which is about a month later than reimbursements came through in prior years. But Duran said she is hopeful that the situation will improve with the Aging Department in charge.

Secretary Knowles indicated in her statement that the Office of the State Auditor was asked in December to investigate Non-Metro’s handling of public funds.

“It was critical that we make this move in order to be good stewards of federal and state dollars and to avoid jeopardizing our federal funding due to questionable finances by NMAAA,” she said.

The decision upset a few state and federal legislators, one of whom has asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to review the contract termination as a possible violation of the Older Americans Act. U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-Los Alamos), a former secretary of the New Mexico Aging Department, said she also considered the decision hasty and worried that it could result in possible disruptions to services.

Tim Armer, the head of Non-Metro, has not made a public comment since the state department’s announcement. But, in September interview, he attributed reimbursement delays to the state taking longer to process its payment requests.

The Chaves County JOY Centers provide meals, transportation, day activities, housekeeping and other services for area seniors.

“We at the JOY Centers will continue to do the best we can so that seniors will not feel the stress of the change from one entity to another,” Duran said. “We hope that there is no disruption and that we are able to provide quality services for them.”

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.