Mental health panel’s report hits managers

From the Oregonian, March 24, 2000. Not available elsewhere online.

County officials, surprised, see a new political problem rather than hoped-for suggested improvements.

When the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners appointed a mental health task force last year, the goal was clear: Figure out a way to improve the county’s deteriorating mental health system.

Board Chairwoman Beverly Stein had high hopes that the 12-member, citizen-led group would cut through the morass that the mental health system has become and shed light on new approaches to serving the mentally ill.

But a report issued by the panel at a meeting Wednesday night sparked a heated debate after a draft version called for the county to shake up the management of the Community and Family Services department. The department handles mental health issues.

The task force singled out managers in the department as “inept and inattentive.” Before the meeting, task force Chairwoman Elsa Porter went as far as naming Community and Family Services Director Lolenzo Poe and behavioral health manager Floyd Martinez as the problems.

Now Stein and the board have a political hot potato on their hands. Some question whether the task force is addressing a fundamental issue in mental health services or just creating a new problem.

Stein downplayed the report, saying it’s still a draft until the group officially reports to the board Thursday. She said she was surprised to see language critical of county management.

“I thought the language was quite inflammatory,” she said. “They certainly have the right to comment on issues that they think are pertinent, and I appreciate their honesty. But these are serious kinds of allegations that have been made.”

Stein will look into allegations

Stein said she supports Poe and Martinez and will stand by them. But she plans to investigate allegations by some of the task force members.

The board appointed the task force in August and asked members to examine the county’s mental health system. The goal was to come up with ideas on how to improve the system that has fallen apart in the last 2 1/2 years.

Mental health providers have lost funding during that time as the state has moved from fee-for-service to managed care funding formulas when that demand for services has increased.

Case loads have tripled in some agencies, with some caseworkers now responsible for 100 clients at a time, but support services for the mentally ill have been cut. More than 10,000 county residents receive publicly funded mental health services, but no one is certain how many people are served or how much it costs.

The task force met first in the fall, conducting much work in subcommittee meetings. Most members had not seen the draft report until Wednesday morning. Discussions at Wednesday night’s meeting at Portland State University were part substantive debate over policy recommendations and part wordsmithing of the final 13-page report and a chart headlined “The Ideal Mental Health System.”

The task force did not provide copies of the draft to the audience, even after State Sen. Avel Gordly, D-Portland, who had testified about problems a relative had experienced with mental health services, requested copies for the audience of about 60.

Meeting turns tense

Gordly took the matter into her own hands, handing a copy she had obtained to a staff member from Stein’s office and asking him to go to a quick-print shop. Within a half-hour, copies were available to everyone in the room.

The meeting turned tense over discussion of the draft’s strong criticism of unnamed county social services administrators. Some audience members interrupted discussion to defend county officials “It impugns everyone in (the department of) family services,” said Kathleen Saadat, who works for the county.

Some task force members clearly were uncomfortable with the draft report’s assertion that “the system has fallen victim to inept and inattentive leadership,” among other statements.

“It really sounds like we are trying to get somebody,” said task force member Sandy Hayden.

Constance Powell, a task force member who was most critical of county leaders at the Wednesday meeting, said Thursday that five county-funded employees at different work levels have raised issues privately about county management. She says Poe and Martinez are responsible.

“They are the leaders, so they would be the accountable people,” she said.

Having a task force deal with such a monumental issue hasn’t fazed Stein or the four county commissioners. All are big proponents of citizen involvement in government.

But the findings mark one of the first times a committee has called for changes in the county’s leadership structure. “This is not something that we anticipated,” said Bill Farver, Stein’s top aide. “We obviously are going to have to ask them for more specifics on what they mean.”

Stein remains undaunted, saying that the alternative would be to keep the public from being involved.

“You take some risks in terms of what’s going to emerge,” she said. “I don’t have a problem with that. On the other hand, I’m not compelled to do anything the task force says. I appreciate all the work they’ve done but the board will make the final decision here.”

The task force will go before the board with its final report on Thursday. Poe, Martinez and other family services staff will have a chance to address the findings on April 13.