ATLANTA -- The state’s second-newest department is facing personnel problems and a one-man investigation by a veteran legislator at the same time it’s attempting a major shift in how it delivers services to mental patients across Georgia.
Officials at at the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities say nothing sinister has occurred. But it hasn’t satisfied Rep. Keith Heard.
So far, he has uncovered the payment of 46 bonuses ranging from $1,034 to $22,000 given to employees for taking jobs as lowly as filing clerk all the way up to commissioner. All were paid outside of the state’s normal procedures.
The Athens Democrat also has a letter signed by the “Management Team” of one state hospital complaining of systematic irregularities in the hiring, firing and supervision of personnel.
And he’s raising questions about outside consulting done by the commissioner. What else is there, and how are patients affected?
“I’m getting so much stuff, and those are some of the questions I’m going to ask,” said Heard, in the House since 1993 and a member of the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Human Resources that oversees the department’s budget.
The Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities began operating July 1, 2009, after being spun off from other departments. Even before it became a separate agency, its staff was directing the shift away from in-patient treatment at mental hospitals and toward out-patient services, a major change that has left patients and employees apprehensive.
Other legislators have heard plenty of reservations from patients and staff about how the change will affect them.
“The people I’ve heard most from are patients and consumers of mental-health services, just an uncertainty,” said Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome.
She’s also heard from some of the workers at the Northeast Georgia Regional Hospital in her hometown that the department closed as the first phase in the shift toward more out-patient treatment. Few took advantage of the department’s offer of jobs at hospitals in other cities, she said, because they feared those would eventually close, too. But she hasn’t heard the types of issues Heard is bringing up although she’s interested.
“Overall, I have a great concern,” she said.
Likewise, Rep. Rusty Kidd, I-Milledgeville, knows hospital workers with 30 years on the job who disagree with the transition to out-patient care.
“I’ve heard that a number of the new employees are not ‘state employees’ and are independent contractors and don’t have to go by the same rules as a ‘state employees,’” he said, adding that their pay is higher although they don’t get any benefits like conventional state employees.
Organizations that advocate for those getting services from the department aren’t saying much either.
“I have heard many things. I have not seen anything specific. I don’t know how employee morale is,” said Pat Nobbie, deputy director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, an independent state agency the campaigns for patient services.
Heard, though, says he does know about morale and calls it low. He lays the blame at the feet of the department’s commissioner Dr. Frank Shelp.
“They really don’t like this guy,” Heard said.
Heard confronted Shelp Nov. 8 during a subcommittee hearing. He asked the psychiatrist about his own $22,500 hiring bonus and $2,000-per-month housing allowance on top of his $225,000 salary.
Shelp made no apology.
“I do not feel ashamed about the package I negotiated to take this job,” he told the lawmaker.
Since then, Heard is also questioning Shelp’s managerial experience, the $23,623 in travel he’s charged the state in 28 months and work that he does as a consultant for the United Methodist Homes of Henrico, Va.
The work with the Methodist retirement center in his home state takes just four to six hours per month, mostly on holidays and weekends, said Tom Wilson, the department’s spokesman. Shelp, a specialist in geriatric psychiatry, earns $900 per month for it and has been on consultation there for 12 years. It keeps fresh his clinical perspective, Wilson said.
“There’s no reason he shouldn’t do it. There’s no law or policy as long as it doesn’t conflict with his state job,” he said, noting that the Methodist facility has no dealings with the Department of Behavioral Health.
Regarding the travel expenses, it’s a fraction of the $2 million yearly spent by the department for employee trips, Wilson said. All has been related to his position, including the conference he attended in Hawaii, a fact-finding trip to Phoenix, Arizona, and airfare to Savannah, Amelia Island, Fla., and mileage to Augusta and Athens.
Money allocated for travel can’t be used for treating patients because of how it is appropriated by the General Assembly, Wilson said.
Beyond trying to make Shelp justify his income and expenses, Heard is mainly focusing on personnel issues. A disgruntled employee he won’t name for her protection approached the Legislative Black Caucus with her story of being disciplined, she said, unjustly. What she said about the operation of the department led Heard on his mission.
Since the hearing where he confronted Shelp, Heard said the news coverage prompted other workers to come forward with similar stories.
Among those was a group from the Southwestern State Hospital in Thomasville that sent a request for a full audit to the head of the State Personnel Administration on hospital letterhead and signed “The Management Team.”
The letter was dated Nov. 9, the day reports of the hearing hit the newspaper. The Personnel Administration has received the letter but hasn’t had time to do anything about it, according to SPA spokeswoman Deborah Rollins, who said she wasn’t aware of any other complaints about Behavioral Health.
The hospital declined to comment, noting that its administrator had only been on the job three days.
From the department’s position, Wilson said an audit is always welcome and could produce useful results.
Heard said the problems aren’t limited to Thomasville.
“I’m hearing from all over,” he said.
And he’s vowing to continue to uncover more. Although legislators have no subpoena power, he’s awaiting multiple requests for documents under the state’s Open Records Act that makes government materials available to the public.
Any organization going through the level of transformation that Behavioral Health is experiencing can expect grumbling from workers resistant to change.
“There might be some of that,” Heard concedes. “But I’ve verified some of this. It’s bigger than that. It’s a lack of leadership.”
Shelp and the upper management should prepare for more confrontation as the department prepares to ask the committee Heard sits on for its annual appropriation in January.