Membership engagement saves services
Story and photos by SHERRY HALBROOK
When PEF members at the state Office of Mental Health in the Middletown area found out the agency wanted to close or privatize the mental health clinics and services it was operating in Orange County, they immediately began to mobilize support for maintaining these state services on which many local residents depend.
OMH did not notify PEF of its intentions, but it did tell the county mental health commissioner who brought the matter to the attention of the county mental health committee, and that is how the PEF members first learned about the plan.
The PEF members submitted a written summation of their concerns to the county committee April 23. By then, they already had reached out to all local members of the NYS Assembly and Senate, and had contacted numerous other stakeholders including the local and regional chapters of NAMI (the National Association for the Mentally Ill), local hospital staff/administration, and relevant union leadership.
That quick and effective action mobilized a coalition that gained the support of the Orange County Legislature.
Dozens of PEF and other coalition members attended and many spoke up at the county legislature’s May 3 meeting. Even a county court judge attended to show his concern. The county legislature unanimously passed a resolution calling on the governor and OMH to live up to their commitments and maintain the mental health services with full funding and staffing.
“I’m very proud of the quick and effective way our members stood up for their services and clients,” said PEF President Wayne Spence. “They are demonstrating how our professional skills and knowledge and the network of clients and community leaders can forge a powerful force for good. When we all work together we can succeed.”
The members were aided in their efforts by Janette Clark, who represents members at the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities on the PEF Executive Board, and by PEF Associate Director of Organizing Dan Carpenter.
“It’s a pleasure working with such dedicated and professional members on something they care about so much,” Carpenter said. “Their activism is a classic model of how to mobilize quickly and build coalitions with many other groups and people in the community to attack a problem and achieve a goal.”
Currently, OMH provides services to severely and persistently mentally ill individuals throughout Orange County. These programs include the:
• Newburgh Mental Health Clinic (census 216);
• Middletown Mental Health Clinic (census 351);
• Intensive Assertive Community treatment (ACT);
• Intensive Case Management (ICM);
• Friendship club-a socialization/day program;
• Forensic Support team (that previously had three full-time staff, but was down to just one full-time staff in late April) which provides liaison services and forensic support to individuals transitioning out of jail, recently incarcerated or arrested persons with mental health issues as a jail diversion and liaison to needed clinical services;
• Family care program (housing program similar to the foster care program where clients live with a family providing housing, supervision, and meeting needs of the individual);
• State Operated Community Residence (SOCR); and
• Transitional Residence (TR).
There is currently a waiting list for ICM and ACT services as well as housing for this population. Although, again, the state did not notify PEF of its plans, the members learned OMH wants to close its state operated community residences in Orange County.
The PEF members explained to the county legislators that often private providers are unable to manage high risk individuals and will not admit them to their programs or discharge them when they miss appointments. In other cases, the private providers may be unable to provide the needed medication such as long-acting injectable medications.
The private agencies often have a high turnover rate of staff due to lack of experience, education, licensure, low salary and weak benefit packages. This places a burden on the community, causes gaps in continuity of care and needed services.
Understaffing of the state and private services ultimately increases local hospital emergency room visits, and inpatient revolving-door admissions. They can increase arrests, jail populations, substance misuse and homelessness. All of these are costly to Orange County and increase Medicaid costs.
“I commend the courage of our members in speaking out on these very important issues, knowing they might be targeted for retaliation,” Spence said. “I also commend and thank the members of the Orange County Legislature, who acted unanimously and without regard to party affiliation, for recognizing and respecting the serious issues our members raised and for responding immediately to protect the interests of all their county residents.”