About 200 Wake County employees – who handle tasks such as working with drug-addicted homeless people and children with mental illness – are finding their jobs in limbo because of a proposed restructuring of county services by the UNC Health Care System.
In a work session Monday, county commissioners heard from County Manager David Cooke and Kevin Fitzgerald, chief of staff to UNC’s health care system and school of medicine, about the latest development in Wake’s mental-health system, which is merging with Durham County’s system.
About 45 Wake behavioral health employees have already joined the new, merged system. But about 200 additional Wake workers don’t know whether they will be able to join a UNC Health Care transition team, take buyouts or find other jobs within Wake County.
“There are some people in denial and some people who would love to go work for UNC,” said Beth Nelson, child mental-health substance abuse services manager, who agreed in December to take a severance package. “There are some people that are upset and angry because they don’t know what’s going on. There are so many unknowns.”
Some of those decisions could be made by the UNC transition team, whose role still has to be approved by commissioners in July or August.
“What we believe we can bring to the table is rigor and a set of expertise,” Fitzgerald said. “There are going to be important shifts that need to be put in place. We are going to pay a lot of attention to system performance, and we are going to be paying a lot of attention to integration of services.”
About 100 employees who were paid by state or federal funds have already left or moved to the joint operation, known as Alliance Behavioral Healthcare. Wake already has made severance payments nearing $500,000 with this group of employees, Cooke said, and could pay a similar amount for the second group.
The employees whose future remains to be determined are those paid out of the $20 million that Wake spends directly each year. Cooke recently held a tense meeting with many of those whose jobs are up in the air. Employees expressed concern not only about their own futures, but also about the care of long-time clients.
UNC will work with employees and those who serve the mentally ill as it sorts out which functions should remain in place for the roughly 5,000 people who get care from Wake County. Some programs are combined with other county departments, such as the perinatal substance abuse program, pharmacy services and homeless outreach, treatment and housing.
Some of these programs may continue with contract providers, while others could still be performed by county staff.
“We want to rebalance the system, with the goal of keeping people out of crisis and keeping people out of the emergency room,” Cooke said. “We have got about $20 million in resources that we have committed to behavioral health. This is us asking UNC Health Care to manage and administer our behavioral health services as we move through this transition.”
Things to figure out
In a letter to Cooke, William Roper, dean of the UNC School of Medicine, said that UNC and Wake should move quickly to review and define these areas:
• How much oversight UNC would provide to the behavioral-health services and employees that still don’t have a role under the Durham-Wake agreement.
• How UNC, Wake and Alliance will decide on the means to deliver care to patients in counties.
• How much Wake will pay UNC under the arrangement.
• How and whether Wake employees who haven’t been placed might work for UNC.
At Monday’s work session, Ellen Holliman, the CEO of Alliance, expressed concern about UNC guiding the transition by Wake into the new joint agency.
“I think we need assurance that we are not duplicating our efforts,” Holliman said.
Doug Fuller, director of communications for The Durham Center, which manages care for patients, said the phone numbers that clients call to access services and information will remain the same. While the merged entity will officially be housed in a building in Research Triangle Park, a satellite center will remain at The Durham Center’s current location in Durham.
The Durham Center’s employees, about 80, had an opportunity to apply for a position with the new organization, Fuller said.
“I am not aware of anyone who wanted to remain with the organization that was not offered an opportunity to do so,” Fuller said.
It is unclear how and if the services may change, said Robert Robinson, Alliance Behavioral Healthcare’s deputy director. That will be determined when Medicaid finalizes how much it will pay per member per month, which could come as late as October, Robinson said.
“Our intent is not to cut services,” Robinson said.
Town Hall informational meetings will be held in Raleigh at Wake County Commons at 6:30 p.m. on May 29 and in Durham at the Main Library at 5:30 p.m. on June 4. Both are open to all stakeholders and the general public.
Correspondent Virginia Bridges contributed to this report.