Resignation Shows Mental Health Board Still Lightning Rod [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel]

by Meg Kissinger, November 10, 2014.

Kathie Eilers.

Kathie Eilers (photo from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).

Kathie Eilers, the on-again-off-again mental health administrator, resigned Monday as liaison to the newly created Milwaukee County Mental Health Board, saying her expertise is no longer required.

County Executive Chris Abele, who appointed the 70-year-old former administrator to the board in May, said he knew her term would be a “finite engagement.”

Eilers released a statement saying that she enjoyed her time working with the board, and that her resignation would be effective Dec. 19.

County Board members, who have been quick to criticize the Mental Health Board since its inception last spring, say the move is a sign of turmoil on the new board.

“There are some very good people on the board, but it is in disarray,” County Board Supervisor Patricia Jursik said. “The way the whole board was set up has been problematic from the beginning.”

The board was created by state law — it passed the state Senate and Assembly by a combined vote of 122-1 — after a Journal Sentinel investigation showed hundreds of people with severe mental illness suffered and died as County Board members ignored decades of calls for reform.

The law requires the new board to be made up of medical professionals and people with mental illness. Their goal is to transition mental health care in Milwaukee County from services mainly provided at the county psychiatric hospital to more programs in the community.

County Board members have sharply criticized the new board for passing a budget in late August without holding public comment, calling it “taxation without representation.”

The mental health budget is included in the overall county budget submitted by Abele — an elected official. The County Board approved the overall budget Monday. By law, the board cannot change the amount in the mental health budget.

‘A vast improvement’

Abele said Monday the numbers are moving in the right direction since the new board was established, with fewer emergency room visits and better outcomes for patients.

“I never said this new board would be perfect,” Abele said. “But it’s a vast improvement on what we had for decades. Does anyone really want the County Board to be running mental health again?”

The debate comes as administrators grapple with ways to provide care amid a shrinking workforce.

John Schneider, the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division’s executive medical director, sent a memo last week detailing the reduction of inpatient beds at the county’s Mental Health Complex while the administration works to recruit more employees.

“We will be instituting new census caps for use to better, safer and more efficaciously manage our duty to care for patients,” he said.

Pat Schroeder, the BHD administrator, told Mental Health Board members in an email last week that she and her staff were working hard to meet the demands to ensure patient safety.

“The challenges of the recent weeks have demonstrated that we need to take different actions to assure quality and safety,” Schroeder said.

The county’s Mental Health Complex has been cited more than 182 times by federal and state administrators for code violations in the past 10 years, 30% more than at the state’s two psychiatric hospitals for criminal offenders.

A doctor who examined medical records of six patients who died at the complex in 2012 found that basic medical care was lacking in four of the cases, contributing to their deaths.

The county recruited and trained 14 registered nurses in the past three months, only to have 14 other nurses resign.

The BHD, with 585 employees, is one of the county’s largest departments. Those who work there are considered county employees, but the budget is overseen by the Mental Health Board and not the County Board.

Mental Health Board members have called a special meeting at 10 a.m. Nov. 19 to discuss what duties they and the BHD staff should be performing. The meeting will be in the auditorium at the Milwaukee Public Schools Central Services Building, 5225 W. Vliet St., to allow easy access for the public to attend and comment.

Eilers, a nurse, retired from the county in 2003 after nearly 20 years, including about a decade as behavioral health administrator, with a pension of $4,056 a month. Abele named her as the head of the BHD in 2013, but the County Board rejected her appointment.

Her job with the Mental Health Board paid $75 an hour, and she worked roughly 26 hours a week.

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