Questions arise if Franklin County goes private for mental health care

Issues under review should Franklin County align mental health services with a non-profit agency were discussed Monday by, from left, Sheri Morgan, Charlie Morgan, Sheldon Schwartz and county commissioner Bob Ziobrowski.

A July 1 target date has been set to shift Franklin and Fulton county mental health programs to the private sector, but no one knows where the idea came from or how it will be implemented. Members of the Community Support Program (CSP) discussed the possibility of dramatic change in providing services during a regularly-scheduled meeting Jan. 23 at the county Annex Building in Chambersburg.

Several attendees admitted they knew nothing about the proposal until they read about it in a newspaper less than two weeks ago. That included citizens, advisory committee members and employees of provider agencies.

Franklin County Commissioner Bob Ziobrowski, attending in lieu of David Keller, could not recall where the idea came from, but expected a newly-created non-profit provider to add flexibility and financial advantages to services. Cuts in state funding always impacted how much the county had to kick in.

"We feel the private sector can handle case management more effectively than we can in the bureaucracy of county government. We won't pursue this if it's not a better plan," he told the assembly.

Sheldon Schwartz, Greencastle, a member of the Mental Health Intellectual Disability Advisory Board, said his group attended the Jan. 12 commissioners meeting, then met Jan. 20 to form a Task Force to investigate the concept more. He sent a letter to county administrator John Hart asking about the timing of the transition, whether Fulton County was in agreement and would sign off, for a cost-benefit analysis to be conducted, that services continue or improve, whether the new organization could qualify for 501(c) 3 status, and where oversight would come from.

"People unhappy with services will still complain to the county," he warned.

Ziobrowski replied, "Your questions are my questions."

Greencastle resident Sheri Morgan had attended several CSP meetings. She wondered who asked mental health services clients what they thought about changing the structure behind county programming. She endorsed the concept 'Nothing about us without us', that the consumers be involved in the decision-making process the whole way. She was also disappointed that the very people most affected were not at the meeting even though CSP was geared toward individuals who received services. Participants at the session were heavily identified as service providers for employment, housing, treatment and socialization.

Though some of the consumer population had transportation issues, others were not comfortable speaking up or felt their opinions were not valued, visitors said.

Kenny Wuertenberg, executive director of the Mental Health Association (MHA), serving Franklin, Fulton, Bedford and Somerset counties, said the process of moving over to the private sector should be open, with wide representation on committees. He was certain clients would get involved if their opinions were sought.

"On the surface this is a really interesting idea. Are there any alternatives? What is in the best interest of all of the citizens? This will charge people up if they are part of the process."

Morgan doubted the system could be private by summer. Since the people participating in programs had mental illnesses, or mental or physical disabilities, and ranged in age from infant to seniors, she wanted a non-profit agency to have more oversight, not less. Over 60 county employees would be affected, perhaps losing their jobs and then reapplying for the new positions. If pay and benefits dropped, it would be harder to find quality employees. She supported the initiative if services improved, but didn't want years of therapy and learning to become undone for a vulnerable population.

Schwartz, interested in the county's mental health department, had a history of helping the elderly and disabled. He agreed to join the advisory board last year and hoped his background would add a new dimension to the discussion. "It's another constituency. They need fresh ideas, experience outside their comfort zone."

He questioned the administration and billing practices that would need to be adopted.

Alicia Kanelopoulos, a Certified Peer Specialist and member of the board, suggested a delay until 2013.

Sandra Browne could view the issue from two perspectives. She reported that she suffered from two mental illnesses but dealt with them with medication, just as people with physical ailments did. She could easily speak to the public. She also had a job providing services, as a support staff member for New Horizons. She saw working together for a solution a way to erase stigmas. "We all look alike."

The 19 people at the meeting supported client and public involvement, which will include a hearing at some point.

The Franklin County CSP meets the fourth Monday of each month at the annex from 10:30 a.m. to noon. The Fulton County group meets at the same time the second Tuesday of the month at the school district Alumni Building in McConnellsburg.