Progress on County Mental Health Vocational Services

On Wednesday, January 20, 2016, the labor members of the Labor Management Partnership (LMP) — Cheryl Jones (President, AFSCME Local 2733), Nancy Heine (President, AFSCME Local 3052), Winston Johnson (AFSCME Council 25 Rep for Washtenaw County), Bob King (UAW President, Ret’d) and Ian Robinson (HVCLC President) — came to an agreement with the Administration’s team on a set of recommendations which, if adopted by the Commission, will ensure that county employees (most of whom are union members) will continue to provide mental-health related vocational services in Washtenaw County. By keeping the provision of these services in the hands of county employees, we are convinced that the quality of service consumers receive will be much higher than it would under contracting out scenarios.

Our joint proposal received strong support from a majority of Commissioners at their January 20th meeting. Several noted that the creative cost savings that the LMP found were possible only because organized labor was an important part of the process. Since it was the Commissioners who mandated the formation of the LMP in the late summer, this outcome was a vindication of their hope that such a solution could be found if the policy process took the time and made room to listen to county employees and their elected union representatives.

It was moving to hear the parents testify, during the public comment period, about the terrific work that county employees do and how much it means to the families of the consumers. And to hear county mental health employees testify about why they do this work. After public comments were completed, the vocational program compromise proposal was the first thing on the agenda. Cheryl Jones and Trish Cortes (CMH Director, from the Administration half of the LMP) stood together and presented our joint proposal to the Commissioners. After we left the chamber, many members from Cheryl’s and Nancy’s locals, who had attended in large numbers, came expressed their gratitude to Cheryl and Nancy.

Going into discussions earlier that day, it wasn’t at all clear that a compromise proposal would be endorsed by both teams on the LMP. The Admin group had already submitted a recommendation that would have contracted out about 3/4 of all vocational services jobs. Three things were critical to the turnaround:

  • First, the labor team came up with a really solid compromise proposal, involving real sacrifices on the part of county mental health employees, shared sacrifices from non-union employees, more efficient use of transportation resources and a number of other cost-saving innovations. We also made it clear that contracting out the vocational services work would violate two collective agreements, that grievances had already been filed, and that if AFSCME won that grievance, the County would face a liability much larger than the savings expected from contracting out. The President of AFSCME Council 25, Al Garrett, underscored the seriousness of this concern by asking the Arbitrator to expedite the hearing date on these grievances and assigning Winston Johnson to be part of the LMP.
  • Second, we met with all but two of the Commissioners and persuaded a majority that our alternative proposal was preferable to the Administration’s original recommendation. Yousef Rabhi, Kent Martinez Kratz, Andy LaBarre, and Conan Smith were all very helpful in the process, and Ronnie Peterson was with us 100% throughout. We had been keeping Commissioners informed but with the fast-evolving nature of the proposal, a final round of meetings in the last few days secured their support for something very close to the final version of the compromise proposal. In that final round of discussions, Commissioners Felicia Brabec and Ruth Ann Jamnick also contributed some excellent ideas.
  • Third, the Administration representatives on the LMP were deeply committed to providing the best quality mental health care and services for Washtenaw County that we can afford. They also agreed that service quality would be highest if the work continued to be done by county employees who were paid above poverty wages and had long-term relationships with patients. So we shared two vitally important pieces of common ground. Also critical, the Admin team proved open to compromise once they were satisfied that we could find the money needed for 2016, and had a plausible path to sustainability beyond that. Finally, we made it our practice to work with the Administration team’s numbers – after subjecting them to careful scrutiny – so that also helped to convince them that the 2016 and 2017 savings we had found were real and accurate.

We’re not out of the woods yet. The Commissioners have ostponed a vote on the joint proposal till their next meeting, on Wednesday, February 3rd. They did that because some important actors, including the Board of our County Mental Health agency, did not know the details of the compromise agreement, which was finalized only minutes before the County Commission meeting began. Until the Commissioners’ votes have been cast and counted, there is always the possibility of some kind of reversal, though we do not consider this likely.

When the joint proposal is approved, we’ll still face some big challenges. Given the constant state cuts to mental health funding under the Republicans, we’re also going to need to build broad voter support for a millage increase here in Washtenaw County in 2017. Without additional revenues, vocational services and other aspects of the county’s mental health system will erode, and they have already suffered major cuts since 2008. We’ll have to put together a broad, county-level coalition to ensure that such a millage succeeds.

Beyond our county, an even larger threat to the quality of mental health care in Washtenaw County looms. An effort is under way to convince Governor Snyder and the Republican legislature that all county mental health services should be privatized to for-profit HMOs (see link below). If that plan succeeds, the progress we have made on vocational services – and beyond that, the entire public mental health care system — will be undermined. So we’ve got to do our part to form and support a political coalition that will stop this privatization initiative. That’s a state-wide task.

All this means that we’ve got our work cut out for us in the next couple of years. But we made real strides on January 20th and in the four month process leading up to that success. We will build on these successes going forward.