City rejects workers' plan to save jobs

Posted: Thursday, March 09, 2000

Union representatives have proposed to the city manager that workers take over the Department of Health and Social Services - ostensibly to run it in the black - rather than lose it to private mental health service providers.

According to Marine Engineers Beneficial Association attorney Joe Geldhof, the plan was for a joint management and labor effort, along with possible reductions in pay, that would keep the department afloat.

``We asked the city (at a Tuesday meeting) to come up with creative solutions,'' Geldhof said.

The city said no.

The workers also asked about severance pay.

The city again refused.

``What we're really discussing now is the orderly wind-down of the process,'' said MEBA Business Agent Greg O'Claray. ``We want to make certain that the workers' rights are protected.''

City Manager Dave Palmer characterized the meeting with the workers whose department funding ends June 30 as ``real productive.''

The city Health and Social Services workers' union filed a class action grievance against the city manager Friday - claiming Palmer wasn't talking to them sufficiently about his plan to let them go. Since then, informational meetings, negotiations and on-line updates have been going on apace. The manager's office is weathering a barrage of questions, criticism and outright condemnation from the affected mental health workers, their clients and members of the public.

Palmer announced Feb. 24 that the city was getting out of the mental health and chemical dependency business, and would soon farm out its caseload to private agencies.

At a meeting in Juneau Assembly chambers Wednesday night, city and state officials and private mental health care providers worked to put their stamp on what the change from public to private will mean to Juneau's mental health.

Deputy City Manager Donna Pierce, state Division of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Director Carl Brimner and representatives from private mental health service providers addressed the expressed concerns about the transition.

Several city workers earlier criticized two private groups - the Juneau Alliance for the Mentally Ill and Juneau Youth Services - saying they owed a substantial amount of money to Medicaid for overbilling. Brimner, however, said the groups were ``fiscally sound'' and had passed the state's quality assurance audit.

``From the responses we heard last night, we have a long way to go,'' said Karen Sturnick, acting director of Tongass Community Counseling Center, which also stands to inherit some of the city's mental health services.

There was no surprise at the intensity of some of the client responses at the meeting, she said. ``Some good points were made about people being lost in the shuffle.''

Juneau resident Julie Reel, who suffers from anorexia nervosa and who is served by city services, was among mental health consumers at the meeting who were highly critical of the changeover.

``None of the private agencies deals with anorexia,'' Reel said. ``Simply the thought of this transition, of losing my clinician, is deadly for me.''

The state Division of Mental Health will name participants to a transition team ``within the next week or so,'' and that team will include consumers of mental health services as well as providers, Brimner said.

``The message is clear that consumers should be at the table,'' he said.

In support of consumers, Yvonnne Jacobson, a veteran mental health practitioner, has been named as the state's mental health consumer affairs administrator.

``(Division administrator) Leonard Abel's job is to make sure no one falls through the cracks,'' Jacobson said. ``My job is to make sure Leonard makes sure no one falls through the cracks.''

Other informational meetings will be announced to address the issues, Brimner said.

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