PROVO, UT — In June, New Mexico’s Human Services Department released some news most New Mexicans weren’t prepared to hear. The state suspended Medicaid payments to fifteen of the state’s behavioral health providers after an outside audit flagged them for suspected Medicaid fraud. The funding freeze threatened to disrupt services to about 40 percent of the state’s behavioral health population—some 30,000 New Mexicans, including children in foster care, being treated for mental illnesses and substance abuse. Indeed, several health providers went out of business in the weeks that followed. Another provider stopped taking new clients.

The funding halt made national news last month. Per the New York Times:

For weeks now, New Mexico has been in the midst of a sweeping criminal investigation into 15 of its largest mental health providers, suspected of defrauding Medicaid of $36 million over three years. Arizona companies have been hired to fill in, but many patients are struggling without regular treatment. The state behavioral health system is in turmoil, with the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez under sharp attack.

New Mexico In Depth was one of the news organizations to first dig into the details of the scandal they’ve dubbed “The Medicaid Freeze.” The online nonprofit news organization is headed by Executive Director Trip Jennings, whose journalism career has had him in Georgia, Connecticut, California, and, for the last seven years, covering politics and state government for several New Mexico newspapers. In Depth, based about fifty miles southwest of Santa Fe in Rio Rancho, was launched in 2012 with a $500,000 grant from the Kellogg Foundation. I recently talked with Jennings by phone about how his startup—with a mission “to foster, promote, and publish journalism in the public interest”—has been covering the Medicaid story over the past four months. In Depth’s approach may be instructive for newsrooms with similarly small staffs and limited resources—according to its website, In Depth runs on a yearly budget of about $132,500.

Be strategic with story choice/focus. Jennings, who is the nonprofit’s only true editorial employee, and his staff of about five contractors or freelancers, don’t have the resources to report daily breaking news. For “Medicaid Freeze,” they focused on key questions raised by the state’s fraud investigation. In August, In Depth reporter Bryant Furlow outlined “10 unanswered questions about the Medicaid freeze”—ranging from, “Why has the state offered shifting explanations of the halt in payments?” to “What are the implications for Native Americans?”

When In Depth published one of its first Medicaid stories, state government officials were quick to respond with a memo saying it was acting legally because of “credible allegations of fraud.” Jennings said that wasn’t the story his organization was covering; In Depth New Mexico was mining much deeper. By July 11, In Depth was exploring what options state leaders had when they decided to halt funding to health providers, not whether they were legally permitted to do so.

Harness expertise or develop it. In the case of covering the Medicaid freeze, Jennings is well qualified. He reported on Medicaid on and off for years for the Waterbury (CT) Republican-American. He is backstopped on the project by Furlow, a medical reporter with experience covering public health funding issues.

Jennings’ advice for anyone covering a government or political beat is to ask questions beyond the politics. “If you are a state government reporter, it means understanding programs,” Jennings said. “If you are a city hall reporter, it means understanding how the programs are supposed to work. Reporters need to become somewhat knowledgeable, if not expert.”

Ask the “dumb question.” Jennings recommends “really parsing what an agency is saying or a person in power is saying.” That may also mean asking sometimes what seems like a “dumb question.”

“If you have a really dumb question at a press conference, go ahead and ask it, because there are probably other people in the crowd who want to ask it to,” Jennings said.

Partner on projects. For reporters not under the pressure of daily deadlines, Jennings recommends pulling back and doing more in-depth packages when possible. In Depth’s stock-in-trade is project reporting. Its mission statement reads:

We want our journalism to be analytical, to tackle big questions and complex issues. We hope to give a more contextual and comprehensive picture of life in our communities and make it available to as many New Mexicans as possible. That’s why working with news organizations with wide audiences is critical to our mission

Along with “Medicaid Freeze,” Jennings points to a Native America reporting project, done in partnership with the Las Cruces Sun-News, and a Mexico border reporting series, spearheaded by In Depth’s deputy director, Heath Haussamen (who ran NMpolitics.net for seven years before helping to co-found In Depth). In partnership with the Santa Fe New Mexican and Las Cruces Sun-News—two of a handful of In Depth “media partners”—Jennings and team have also examined Gov. Martinez’s tenure and posted a searchable database of state officials’ financial disclosure forms for 2013. “They’re not online anywhere else,” the database’s intro reads, “so New Mexico In Depth is posting 2013 financial disclosure forms for Gov. Susana Martinez and hundreds of other state officials in a searchable database.”

Be people-focused. For the “Medicaid Freeze” project, Jennings said In Depth has focused on overworked providers and the fallout for patients experiencing interrupted services. That was a tall order where confidentiality protects identities of patients and caregivers. In Depth and its media partners were able to document some of the problems by speaking with school districts where some students had become more disruptive because of diminished services. They’ve also listened in on a related hearing and teleconferences between state and federal officials.

In a report carried by In Depth New Mexico, media partner KUNM-FM, the state’s largest public radio station, reported on behavioral health clients facing disrupted services around the state. Last month, KUNM reported on therapists struggling to meet patients’ needs even as state officials claimed the transition for displaced patients to new care providers was “smooth.”

New Mexico journalists have also been hindered by the state’s unwillingness to release the complete audit—done by a private Boston-based firm—that led to the funding freeze. In Depth New Mexico and partner, the Las Cruces Sun-News, filed a lawsuit in late August seeking release of the full audit. Since then, New Mexico’s Foundation for Open Government has filed a similar lawsuit to try to get the documents open to the public.

Missing are specific details documented at each of the 15 providers. Jennings has taken Gov. Martinez to task for not answering media questions and not releasing the audit. He says the audit is critical to helping establish whether the state really had “credible allegations of fraud” before they froze funding to the agencies, invited five Arizona providers in to take over the behavioral health system, and, in effect, left many of New Mexico’s most vulnerable hanging.

Follow @USProjectCJR for more posts from this author and the rest of the United States Project team.

Ends today: If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of
10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.

Joel Campbell is CJR's correspondent for Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. An associate journalism professor at Brigham Young University, he is the past Freedom of Information chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists and was awarded the Honorary Publisher Award by the Utah Press Association for his advocacy work on behalf of journalists in the Utah Legislature. Follow him on Twitter @joelcampbell.