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State agrees to take a 'step back' on WRTC financing shift

WILLMAR -- Plans by the Minnesota Department of Human Services to change how adult mental health care is funded have been put on hold -- at least for the time being. In a letter sent Wednesday to local legislators, Assistant Commissioner of Chemical and Mental Health Services Wes Kooistra said the state will "step back from the financing changes we proposed for the Adult Mental Health Initiatives."

"I'd like to think we bought some time, and that's a good thing," said Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, in an interview Wednesday. "We have their attention. We have been given a reprieve," he said.

The letter, and the abrupt stop in the process, was made after Kooistra and Mike Tessner, chief executive director of the Department of Human Services' State Operated Services, listened to people's concerns about the change during a town hall meeting Tuesday in Willmar.

The meeting was called by Johnson and Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, after about 70 Willmar Regional Treatment Center employees were notified Oct. 31 that the state wouldn't fund their jobs after July of 2007.

The longtime WRTC employees had taken positions on new "teams" that are providing community-based services to mentally ill adults. The new method of providing services is part of the transition to close the adult mental health program at the Willmar Regional Treatment Center.

The new community-based treatment system was praised by employees at the meeting Tuesday, but they said shifting the funding from the state to counties would jeopardize the treatment clients receive.

The change would give counties state money, instead of state employees, to purchase services. Kooistra wrote in his letter that the change would give counties more flexibility and would "directly support client needs, rather than specific jobs or programs."

At the meeting, concern was expressed by employees and county family services departments that the counties wouldn't be able to afford the current services provided by state employees and that existing teams of professionals who are working with clients would end. The result would be detrimental to clients, they said.

"What's wrong with the system they have in place?" asked Jerry O'Connor, president of Local 701 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, in an interview Wednesday.

O'Connor said state employees did as the Department of Human Services asked and formed the teams and changed how they delivered services and the teams "are doing a great job." He said it doesn't make sense that the state wants to suddenly change that system and there's no reason why "perfectly good employees doing a good job should be fired."

O'Connor said he hopes the current system of keeping the team members as state employees remains in place. He was more than a little disappointed the letter from Kooistra said only that the state would "step back" from the process but didn't say the end result would be any different.

The letter from Kooistra doesn't directly say it, but Johnson said he believes the current financing structure will continue at least until the Legislature takes action on whether a new process and a new financing system should take place.

Johnson said he's confident that any future changes will involve open discussions between all parties instead of an "edict" being handed down from state staff.

Discussion and decisions, he said, will "not be done in a closet, but in the sunshine of the day."

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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