As agencies close, others step up
Family Service & Community Mental Health Center’s announcement to cease operations June 30 has left clients of the McHenry-based provider and other social service agencies scrambling to determine appropriate steps to take moving forward.
For the past two years, the McHenry County Mental Health Board has assisted Family Service in continuing its services through consultation, direct funding of services and administrative support. More recently, MCMHB assisted with cash flow loans and advances, said Sandy Lewis, executive director of MCMHB.
Recent reports show individuals primarily received psychiatric and outpatient mental health services. In the past 90 days, about 2,000 clients have used Family Service’s programs. The closure was announced late last month after an agreement with North Central Behavioral Health Systems to continue services fell through.
Family Alliance, one of four social service organizations which has said they could provide services for some of Family Service clients, has managed to maintain its operations at current levels despite a difficult economy combined with decreased budgets.
“We’ve gone with the ebb and flow,” said executive director Carol Louise. “Like most [social service agencies], about 80 percent of our cost is staffing. We haven’t been able to give anybody a raise in four years.”
Family Alliance’s mission is to assist mature adults to remain in their homes and achieve resiliency in their communities by promoting independence through day programming, mental health services and caregiver support. It serves about 400 older adults and hundreds of their caregivers every week through workshops or support groups.
Louise said late payments from the state have become the norm, meaning budgeting has, in recent years, had to take a different approach. The state is behind about $150,000 in payments to the organization. Phil Versten, development associate at Family Alliance, said the state’s under-appropriation of funding to mental health agencies is inexcusable.
“Mental health agencies don’t provide only safety, only health or only welfare. They impact all three,” he said. “If the government can’t promote the safety, health and welfare of its citizens by funding these agencies, what is the government for?”
Louise said Family Alliance cannot make firm estimates on the number of clients they will be able to assist from Family Service. She said her organization has licensed clinical social workers and community support staff available. She noted that some clients may qualify to be part of the day programs.
“We will take these people in and give them service.” she said.
Ultimately, Versten said Family Alliance will keep a close eye on the bottom line as to not endanger its own abilities to serve clients.
“We’re here now, and we’re strong. We’re doing OK,” he said. “We’ll see how funding comes through [before making huge changes].”
For Meg Bolen and Vineeta Chandra, two clients at Family Alliance, the organization’s day programs offer plenty of opportunities to keep busy. Both are part of the organization’s REACH program, which stands for renew, enhance, adapt, connect and heal.
Bolen participates in many of the events offered through the program, including gardening, Tai Chi, cooking demonstrations, music groups, book clubs, computer classes, art classes, card games and more.
“They give you challenges [at Family Alliance], and they like to get you involved,” Bolen said, noting that like anything, it’s what a person makes of it. “I take life as a challenge … I ain’t gonna find no cry corner.”
Chandra agreed, saying Family Alliance helps to facilitate friendships and activities.
“You should appreciate everything you’re getting on this Earth,” she said.
It’s people like Bolen and Chandra who Family Alliance hopes to continue serving well into the future, but with case loads growing bigger and bigger by the day, Louise said the ability to handle all the incoming demand may be difficult.
“We intend to hire additional staff to meet the demand,” she said.
Jeff Kurth, chief financial officer at Pioneer Center for Human Services, said there is some overlap in the types of services Family Service and Pioneer Center offer.
“It should be fairly seamless [for certain clients],” he said, adding that Pioneer Center was even interviewing some of the Family Service staff to expand personnel for the anticipated increase in clients served.
“We’re working on capacity issues now,” Kurth said. “We’re trying to be cautious, but work it all out.”
Kurth said Pioneer Center is speaking with state officials to reiterate a need for timely payments, especially after helping to take some burden off the state by coordinating efforts to address the needs of former Family Service clients. Currently, he said the organization is owed about $3.5 million in back state payments. Pioneer’s annual budget is about $14 million.
The Advantage Group, also known as TAG, was approached by the McHenry County Mental Health Board and Family Services North Central Division to accept the transfer of the Family Service adolescent and young adult population in need of substance abuse treatment.
“TAG has already agreed to this request in that it has the program capacity to accept these clients and the transfer has occurred,” said Pat Owens, executive director of TAG. “There has been no additional funding provided by the Mental Health Board to absorb these clients and [we are] using our existing fee-for-service contracted dollars already allocated.”
Owens said state Medicaid payments are slow, often six to eight months overdue, and impact cash flow substantially. Even with payments on time, TAG still would have challenges.
“In the last several years, our agency McHenry County Medicaid client population has risen dramatically and is offsetting the balance of our funding streams,” Owens said. “Currently 68 percent of our McHenry County clients are Medicaid- funded only, reimbursed at very low levels, and puts our agency at risk with no counterbalance of funding.”
Thresholds also has indicated it could provide services to some of Family Service’s former clients.