Future of regional mental health agency remains unclear as financial woes stack up

Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, the lynchpin of the region's mental health care system, got a temporary reprieve Thursday, May 1, as officials from Multnomah County and the state Department of Human Resources agreed to give the troubled agency more than $1 million in 'accelerated payments' so it could issue payroll checks to its 1,200 employees.

'We've got to keep Cascadia solvent,' said Multnomah County Commissioner Maria Rojo de Steffey. 'The bottom line is serving those clients.'

The move gives Cascadia desperately needed breathing room. Its bank, Capital Pacific, froze Cascadia's accounts on Wednesday, April 30, because the agency has been in default on a $2 million line of credit since January.

'We're aware of what this does to their cash position,' Mark Stevenson, chief executive officer of Capital Pacific Bank, told the Portland Tribune. 'But we have to protect our shareholders and our depositors.'

Cascadia's former CEO, Leslie Ford, approached state and county officials several weeks ago asking for $4 million in loans, guarantees, and other financial assistance. The county and the state refused to undertake any guarantees until a forensic auditor, Darrell D. Dorrell of Lake Oswego, had a chance to scrutinize the agency's accounts and issue a report.

Now, however, state and county officials have decided they could not afford to let the agency collapse.

'Our No. 1 priority is to do whatever's necessary to keep services going,' said Wheeler's spokesman, Rhys Scholes.

'Some honest answers'

Although Cascadia appears to have staved off immediate collapse, the agency's future remains unclear. County officials have been scrambling to figure out how to serve the agency's vulnerable clients should the organization cease to function.

'If there's a plan, now is the time to roll it out,' said Sharon Gary-Smith, director of Consumer and Family Involvement at Cascadia. 'Clients are asking, 'What's going to happen to me?' and I need to have some honest answers.'

With an annual budget of $60 million, Cascadia provides services to about 23,000 mentally ill clients across the state, offering crisis intervention, treatment, walk-in clinics, housing, counseling, case management, and outreach.

The non-profit agency has grappled with several challenges during the past year, including problems switching to a new computer system; a shift in the way it is reimbursed by county and state governments; high caseloads; low morale; a union drive; and a Medicaid audit that identified $2.7 million in overbilling.

The new CEO, Derald Walker, was unavailable for comment, but issued a statement to employees Wednesday that the agency would strive to conduct 'business as usual.'

'I am extremely grateful for your hard work and I want you to know how difficult it must be to stay focused on our consumers in the midst of all the turbulence,' he wrote.

Former CEO Ford, who resigned last week, earned a salary of $190,208 in 2005, the last year for which public records are available.

Officials are encouraging anyone with questions about mental health services in the Portland area to call Multnomah County's call center, 503-988-4888.

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