Philly clinic scam is a lesson for opioid epidemic battles to come

Renee Tartaglione leaves the federal courthouse in Philadelphia, PA. She was convicted Friday for skimming $1 million from a Fairhill mental health clinic for which she was both president and landlord. ( AP PHOTO / THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER / David Maialetti )

Renee Tartaglione robbed a desperately poor community of its mental health services.

Last week, a federal jury convicted her on 53 counts of conspiracy, theft, fraud, and tax evasion for her role in stealing $1 million from the Juniata Community Mental Health Clinic.

But she didn’t act alone.

Her first co-conspirator was the political spoils system that paved her way to a contract from a city agency.  Although she lacked any training in mental health care or administration, she did have one thing: a political pedigree.

Her mother is Marge Tartaglione, the Democrats’ powerful matriarch and former longtime head of the city’s election agency. Her sister is Christine Tartaglione, a state senator. Her husband is Carlos Matos, a ward leader who served 3 years for extortion.

Also at fault:  the city and its Community Behavioral Health agency, which failed to provide proper oversight of the clinic’s management or finances.  For example, Tartaglione was both president and landlord. As landlord, she raised the rent from $4,800 to $75,000 in 2012. As president, she paid the bills. She also paid former State Rep. Leslie Acosta a salary, part of which Acosta kicked back to her boss.

The CBH clearly had inadequate controls. The Tartaglione enterprise was allowed to hum along for more than a decade before the city’s inspector general uncovered the fraud.

Tartaglione’s criminal acts are far more egregious than the usual Philadelphia political scandal because the potential for damage is so deep and widespread — and because this scandal provides fodder for those who want to cut Medicaid — the primary source for Tartaglione’s clinic’s funding.

Consider the country’s current opioid epidemic. The city’s overdose deaths this year are projected to exceed last year’s 900. The national death toll of 65,000 last year is also expected to surge this year. And experts say it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Yet the resources to treat this crisis are under attack from Republicans in Congress who want to slash Medicaid at a time when it is needed most to treat addicts.

Since the origins of the Tartaglione scam, the CBH has made strides in addressing its failure in cases like Tartaglione’s. Since it is handling Medicaid and state funds to treat the opioid epidemic,  it’s more important than ever that the agency runs efficiently and more transparently.

Its webpage shows the agency still has a way to go to be transparent. Every contract should be accessible on its site, as well as the details of clinic operators and staff monitoring reports. The more we know, the less likely it will be for anyone to steal money from profoundly vulnerable people — whether they’re suffering from mental health issues or opioid addiction.