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Johnson says the state needs to take a step back on WRTC changes

WILLMAR -- A deep passion to help people with mental illness, good intentions and repeated apologies for a poorly worded memo spilled together Tuesday as local legislators, state directors, county officials and employees of the Willmar Regional Treatment Center met to discuss recent changes in how adult mental health programs will be financed in Minnesota.

Sen. Dean Johnson, with the support of three other legislators at the table, said the Minnesota Department of Human Services needs to "take one step back" in implementing the new changes.

Johnson asked that a memo, which was sent to about 70 WRTC employees last week that said their jobs with the state would end in 2007, be rescinded.

Johnson said the request would be sent in writing today to Mike Tessneer, chief executive director of the Department of Human Services' State Operated Services, and Wes Kooistra, assistant commissioner of chemical and mental health services. Johnson also said committee hearings in the Senate and House should be held in March on the issue with a final report due April 1.

"We can do better than we're doing right now," said Johnson, who said since he's been a legislator he's followed the rule that "the people are always right." This situation proved that true, he said. "You're right and something is wrong."

Both Tessneer and Kooistra were at the meeting to issue their apologies for the memo, offer explanations for their intentions to provide better services and listen to the concerns of employees who spoke at length -- not about how the change would affect them and their jobs -- but about the care of their clients.

They made no promise to rescind the memo or to stop the changes.

The fury started Oct. 31 when the WRTC's State Operated Service employees received the memo that they would no longer be state employees. The change would affect long-time WRTC employees who agreed to become part of crisis teams or Assertive Community Treatment teams that provide services to mentally ill adults in their home communities as part of the transition to close that program at the WRTC.

Counties have been working for years to develop the new service delivery system on the premise that the State Operated Service employees from the WRTC would be working on teams and facilities in certain communities.

WRTC employees made career decisions based on that premise and have successful teams and facilities in operation. The teams, which include employees with 30 years of experience, were praised for their work and ability to keep clients out of hospitals and in their homes.

Now, counties are being told they will be given financial grants to hire who ever they want to provide the services. That means existing teams of state employees could cease to exist and the employees may not be eligible for pension options.

Kooistra said the change was made to allow counties more flexibility in choosing how to fund services. In some cases, there aren't state employees available to hire for teams in some communities. Now, those counties will be able to use the money to provide services to clients by hiring private providers in the community. He said the amount of state funding for services won't be reduced.

Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar said area counties have already made their decision on how to fund services and it involves utilizing state employees. He said it appeared to him the only reason the change was being made was so WRTC employees with 20-30 years of experience would be released from the state's pension plan.

Kooistra said employees were notified of the funding change now so they would have time to consider applying for nearly 800 other jobs the state will be filling in new community hospitals and forensic facilities, which is also part of the transition to close regional treatment centers. He said the jobs may not be the same, and may not be in the location employees want, but there will be options for other jobs.

The consensus from people who spoke during the two-hour meeting is that the clients would be the losers in that scenario.

Dave Benoit, who works on an Assertive Community Treatment team based in St. Cloud, said he's working with families who left their previous doctors to be under the care of the ACT team. He said he's given families, including clients suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, the promise that the team would be there for them 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"I've gained their trust," he said, and they "put hope in our ACT team." Now, he said, "I feel like I lied to them." Their care "will be disrupted," said Benoit, adding that he is "miffed" that employees weren't informed about the funding changes before promises were made to clients and employees made crucial decisions about their jobs. "We were misled," he said.

Sen. Becky Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, chairwoman of the Health and Family Security Committee, said she didn't know about the change until she read the memo last week. She asked that action be delayed until Kooistra and Tessneer find out how much money the state has spent to train the employees for their jobs on the teams. She said that investment could be lost if the changes are made and clients will lose the help they have received from highly experienced employees.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said he supported the request to send the issue back for more discussion.

Kooistra said the shift in funding has been no secret and was discussed in the last legislative session. He said functioning as a revenue-based enterprise program is how 40 percent of the state operated services in Minnesota currently operate.

He said, however, the information at the meeting was valuable and showed that everyone has the same desire to provide the best care possible for the clients.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750
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