WRTC staff: 'They dropped a bomb on us'

Jerry O'Connor has worked for nearly 30 years at the Willmar Regional Treatment Center as a mental health practitioner. He's one of about 70 employees who is now working as part of a new "team" of professionals to provide services to mentally ill...

Jerry O'Connor has worked for nearly 30 years at the Willmar Regional Treatment Center as a mental health practitioner. He's one of about 70 employees who is now working as part of a new "team" of professionals to provide services to mentally ill adults in their home communities.

As part of the plan to put Willmar Regional Treatment Center clients into community-based settings, the state's initiative included establishing crisis teams and Action Community Treatment teams to serve clients where they live.

With the pending closure of the state's adult mental health programs -- including those offered at the WRTC, taking a job on a team provided some job security for the employees in a field where they had years of experience.

A letter that employees received this week may have changed that. "They dropped a bomb on us on Monday," said O'Connor, who also serves as president of local 701 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The memo came from the Department of Human Services' State Operated Services, which provides programs for people with mental illness, developmental disabilities, chemical dependency and traumatic grain injury. It said that by June 30, 2007, the state "will cease the practice of employing state staff to serve in the adult mental health initiatives."

The approximately 70 WRTC employees who were encouraged to take a job on the teams "are now on notice they will have no jobs," said O'Connor. Most of the people on his team have worked for the WRTC for 25 to 32 years.


He said because the employees took the "off campus" jobs, they are no longer eligible for other retirement options, like getting health insurance until they're 65 or taking a $20,000 cash alternative.

"They took that option away from them, and now they're just going to can them," said O'Connor.

"You can't tell a bigger lie than what we've been told or been ambushed any worse that what we have been," said O'Connor.

The memo, written by Rod Kornrumpf and Doug Seiler from State Operated Services, says the change was made at the request of counties who wanted more flexibility in how to provide the services in their communities. Instead of having state employees assigned to specific adult mental jobs in the service communities (which was in the original plan), counties will now have the choice of using state staff, or state money to provide services they need.

As for the employees, the memo says the timing of the announcement will allow employees to "make informed choices about your future." It also says "While we know this creates more uncertainty in your professional life, we believe it will help create a better community-based mental health system for the people we serve for years to come."

In a telephone interview late Tuesday, Wes Kooistra, the assistant commissioner for chemical mental health services with the Department of Human Services, said the memo "poorly communicated" the intent of the Department of Human Services. He acknowledged WRTC employees would be "anxious" because of how the message of the memo was presented. "This is not the way we want to communicate to employees," he said.

Kooistra said he didn't want to "diminish the disruption" the changes will cause to employees, but said changes were made at the request of counties who wanted more flexibility in providing mental health services in their communities.

He said the change will utilize a revenue-based "enterprise" system for mental health programs. It's the same type of funding system the state uses for other human service programs, like chemical dependancy treatment or programs for people with disabilities, where counties use state money to contract for services. In some cases, counties will end up using state employees for the adult mental health services. In some cases, they won't.


Kooistra said the WRTC employees will have many options for employment. During the time the change in funding structure is expected to be completed in July of 2007, there will be 800 people hired to work at the new community-based mental health hospitals. "We want to retain the skills these people have," he said. There will be jobs "if people choose to take those options."

Kooistra said the transition in how adult mental health services are provided in Minnesota is "really remarkable reform."

The process to get there, however, may not be easy.

Larry Kleindl, director of Kandiyohi County Family Services, was not pleased with the sudden change in the financial structure of the plans.

For the past two years staff members from his department have been meeting monthly with the 21 other counties in the WRTC service area to develop plans to move clients to new facilities and provide a new way of delivering services. They'd been working on plans based on the state's directions for utilizing state employees, not state grants.

"From my point of view, it's a major change in planning," said Kleindl. He said it's "disheartening" because the counties and state had been "working so hard" during the last two years to establish good communication and a strong partnership to prepare for the transition from the WRTC to community-based care. "I hope this is just a misstep," he said.

Kleindl said he'd read the memo several times trying to figure out exactly what it means for the county, the staff and the WRTC clients served here. He said he believes the clients will get the same service, but it's not known who will provide it.

"I don't want to send the alarm that everything is going to fall apart," said Kleindl. "But what bothers me is the process."


He said so far, no one from the state Department of Human Services has explained the changes. He said he expects to find out more on Friday, when the 22 counties hold their annual meeting in Redwood Falls.

O'Connor said the employees would like some answers too and will have a lot of questions when they meet with local legislators next week. Representatives from the Department of Human Services are also expected to be at the meeting.

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at or 320-894-9750
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