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Mental health funders working on issues

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN, (Week of November 22, 2012)

In response to growing questions about how the Mental Health Association decides to hire employees and keep them after problems arise, Indian River County Hospital District Chairman Tom Spackman said a variety of agencies are meeting with MHA and looking to resolve the agency’s problems.

“As everyone is aware, there has been criticism of personnel at the Mental Health Association,” Spackman said at an open meeting of the Hospital  District last Thursday.

“To look at and deal with this criticism, funders of MHA – the Hospital District, the McCabe Foundation and the United Way – have been regularly and jointly meeting with MHA leaders to address these issues. We think we are making progress and that MHA will remain a strong contributor to improving behavioral health in our community.

“We hope to work through the remaining issues in the next few weeks and will make public comments about changes and decisions after Thanksgiving.”

Spackman’s comments come on the heels of a circle-the-wagons attitude among MHA leaders, President Kris Sarkauskas and Board Chairman Bob Young, who quit responding to Vero Beach 32963 questions after articles appeared about two MHA employee who remained on staff despite serious problems with their records.

One employee, Irene Acosta, who was the MHA clinical director and a counselor, was not licensed to practice.

The other, Michael Fitzgerald, who was contracted as a counselor, was accused of inappropriate touching by a client, which led to a transfer but not termination. After the stories came out, Fitzgerald told Vero Beach 32963 he regretted he could not respond fully to the allegations because of privacy laws.

MHA did not terminate the employees until Vero Beach 32963 wrote about them.

At first, the reaction of Sarkauskas and Young to the Vero Beach 32963 reports was to blame the paper for exposing what was going on.

While the two MHA officials may still have those feelings, Spackman said they are responding to questions raised by their local funders and working with them to improve hiring practices and personnel issues.

The Hospital District gives property tax money to Indian River County health initiatives for the needy.

Last year, the district gave MHA about $363,000. The McCabe Foundation gave the nonprofit about $122,000 and the United Way gave $80,000.

In its tax forms, MHA says that most of its money – $1.1 million last year – came from government sources and the public.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Indian River County Mental Health Collaborative, including Spackman, have been discussing concerns over the threat of a mental health crisis in the county after Treasure Coast Community Health Care clinics recently closed its psychiatric and behavioral health services because of problems with funding.

The Mental Health Collaborative (which includes the Hospital District, the McCabe Foundation and the United Way, as well as the Mental Health Association and other organizations) works to fill gaps in mental health care that arise in the community. 

“With the closing of TCCH psychiatric services, we estimate that 400 patients are now in need of services, which could have quite an impact on the community,” said Spackman.

The collaborative is monitoring the jail and hospital emergency rooms to keep track of a possible increase in arrests and emergencies among mental health patients.

The members of the collaborative are working to figure out how best to fill the gap in services for mental health patients and enable them to keep getting medications at a reduced rate.

“We are making progress with all of the mental health issues currently facing us,” said Spackman.