Thursday, March 17, 2011

A user's guide to Community Mental Health, Washtenaw County

"I go to meetings so you don't have to."

It has been almost two years since I began attending meetings of the Washtenaw Community Health Organization (Washtenaw County's Mental Health agency) and its various committees. Very often I am the only "outsider" there when important decisions affecting people with disabilities and their families are made. Fortunately, there are consumers of mental health services represented on the Board, but it still tends to operate on the abstract level of policy and funding and does not necessarily take into consideration factors you might feel are important.

There are many ways to make your voice heard. Every WCHO Board and committee meeting begins with an opportunity for public participation where you can say (almost) anything you want - it does not have to be on the agenda or otherwise under consideration by the Board. The meetings are formally run and as much as I may want to insert myself into the conversation during the meeting, that is not how things work. I have to stifle that impulse and plan to come back to raise issues that I think are important. Of course, discussions with staff and Board members before and after the meetings are always possible, and attending meetings regularly is a good way to find out who does what and who to talk to when specific questions arise.

The Executive Director of the WCHO, Patrick Barrie, is a former Deputy Director for the Michigan Department of Community Health. He knows a great deal about state policy, funding, and the politics of mental health services. His reports to the WCHO Board are informative and interesting, especially if you have a geeky need to know how the mental health system works.

The WCHO Board meets on the third Tuesday of each month at the Learning Resources Center at 4135 Washtenaw Avenue, Ann Arbor, near the intersection of Washtenaw Avenue and Hogback Road. Some of the items discussed at recent meetings include the restructuring of the WCHO organization to fix problems with the decentralizing and fragmentation of services and functions of the organization in recent years. For instance, Community Supports and Treatment Services (CSTS) had become an independent publicly-funded provider agency, but now it is coming more under the direct control of the WCHO to improve efficiency and control over services. Another issue is that after years of encouraging a greater choice in service providers for consumers, there are now too many providers for the WCHO to monitor effectively and there are questions about the efficiency of contracting with so many small providers.

Committee meetings that might be of interest to consumers include the Program Committee that meets monthly and the Quality Management Committee that meets quarterly. One of the issues facing the WCHO is getting a handle on whether the programs offered are of value to consumers and of sufficient quality to meet their needs. Part of the reorganization of the WCHO will provide the committees with information they will need to make this determination. In addition, the Finance Committee approves and oversees contracts with the WCHO and focuses on funding issues.

The Affiliation Committee is one of the most interesting to me, as it involves Board members and staff from Washtenaw County plus the three other counties (Lenawee, Livingston, and Monroe) in the Community Mental Health Partnership of Southeastern Michigan. State issues concerning mental health funding and policy come up frequently for discussion. The state organization representing Community Mental Health Boards, the MACMHB, comes in for some criticism with many CMH Boards feeling that the MACMHB does not do enough advocacy on behalf of local CMH's and has become instead a mouthpiece for the Michigan Department of Community Health. The Affiliation is evaluating its role in the MACMHB and will be offering recommendations for improvement of the organization. The Affiliation Committee also approves policy changes for the recipient rights office and assesses the overall fiscal health of the four mental health boards.

The Recipient Rights Advisory Committee meets quarterly to go over reports that analyze incidents of abuse, neglect, and exploitation of mental health consumers. The committee takes into consideration special areas that need scrutiny such as the under-reporting of incidents by service provider staff and incidents in supported living (unlicensed) settings. This committee also serves as an appeals committee to hear appeals brought by or on behalf of WCHO recipients regarding Rights investigations. The recipient rights committee members tend to touch on basic issues that we are all concerned about - the safety and well-being of our family members wherever they are receiving services.

For information about the WCHO Board and committee meetings, check the Washtenaw County Calendar of Events. The calendar includes meetings for all county government boards and committees.

To receive information on Board and committee meetings prior to the day of the meeting, e-mail Suzanne Gondeck at .

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