City aims to ax 40 from payroll

Department's red ink spurs drop in mental health services

Posted: Thursday, February 24, 2000

At least 40 of Juneau's Health and Social Services Department mental health workers will lose their jobs as a result of the city manager's decision to get out of the mental health and chemical dependency business.

Other department workers - numbering about 20 and mostly in the chemical dependency division - may continue in the profession depending on whether they can make the transition to the nonprofit and other groups slated to become providers of the services, according to department Director Christine Blackgoat.

The workers will lose their jobs or be transferred by September. They comprise nearly 10 percent of the city work force, exclusive of the school district and the enterprise funds such as the Eaglecrest Ski Area.

No immediate changes are planned for department workers with the Social Services Block Grants, the Teen Health Center Program, or in such administrative services as billing.

At a meeting in the city manager's office this morning, Deputy Manager Donna Pierce explained that projected deficits for the department had nearly doubled and that ``consolidation of all inpatient services

with (Bartlett Regional Hospital) programs would provide a management structure that is more efficient.''

Many private, nonprofit agencies have matured enough to compete for clients and for social service funding, said City Manager Dave Palmer. ``And Juneau is the only municipal government in Alaska that provides direct social services to clients.''

The Juneau Assembly's Finance Committee met in secret session Wednesday night to consider a recent department audit and personnel matters, as well as possible solutions, Palmer said.

``There were questions but, in general terms, everybody is on board with this,'' said Finance Committee Chairman Dwight Perkins.

Perkins is also the assembly liaison with the Bartlett Regional Hospital board of directors and said the idea to move services to the hospital and other providers came up about five years ago, at which time he was against it. But ``the private sector is screaming we should not be in the business,'' he said.

The thought was echoed by Greg O'Claray, agent for the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, the union representing department employees.

``This is not something new,'' he said. ``When the state dumped this program on the city years ago, it was supposed to be temporary. And the reason this did not spin off earlier is the private providers were not mature enough.''

For 1999, the department counted 482 mental health clients and 6,100 visits, according to Blackgoat. Chemical dependency clients numbered 119, with 4,866 visits.

But the numbers were not enough. ``When you come into a city with a population base of 30,000 and when you see twice as many services as usual for this population base,'' the program is not going to work, Blackgoat said. ``I think we have excellent nonprofits that are willing and able to do the job.''

In recent years, the number of the department's indigent clients had gone up, according to Blackgoat. In addition, some Juneau residents lost their Social Security and Medicaid benefits when the federal government eliminated drug or alcohol dependency as a disability. Military veterans were similarly affected.

The mental health and chemical dependency programs also were without the accreditation insurance companies required for payments to the department. And the Mental Health Division was seeing more patients who couldn't pay, as agencies and private practitioners referred an increasing number of would-be-Medicaid clients to both city programs, Blackgoat said.

Agencies that will likely begin providing the services the department is letting go include the Juneau Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Juneau Youth Services, Tongass Counseling Center, Bartlett Regional Hospital and Gastineau Human Services.

``The new providers don't see a problem with picking these people up,'' Perkins said.

The state Department of Labor can provide a transition team for workers losing their jobs, facilities for upgrading skills and resume preparation, he said. Perkins is also deputy commissioner for the state Department of Labor and is in charge of work force development.

``We're going to help them through the transition and make sure (department workers') rights are protected,'' O'Claray said.

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