One less option for Juneau children

Despite efforts to maintain an unmatched service in Alaska’s capital, Catholic Community Service will close its behavioral health program in less than four months.

“It’s a very sad day for us that we’re not going to be able to continue supporting these kids,” Erin Walker-Tolles, the regional executive director for CCS in Juneau, said. “The reaction we got from families was that (this program has) made a big difference in their lives and the lives of their children. It’s going to be tough on the families.”

CCS’ behavioral health program serves elementary-aged children who may have experienced some form of trauma, including family divorce, sexual abuse, substance abuse or homelessness. Families receive individual and group therapy sessions and, unlike places such as Juneau Youth Services where residential programs are provided, outpatient care is an option at the center that serves children in Juneau and Hoonah. But that will soon change.

“Unfortunately, the system is set up so that we can’t maintain (the behavioral health program) and also keep our other programs going,” Walker-Tolles said.

The Juneau School District and the Offices of Children Services refer families to CCS primarily; those families often tend to be dependent on Medicaid for treatment payment.

Medicaid is charged for services CCS provides, but that doesn’t pay it all. Medicaid rates haven’t increased in nearly a decade, but the cost of treatment — and the time it takes to document treatment — has nearly doubled in that same time period. As a result, a gap was created that turned into a financial pothole CCS could no longer avoid.

Walker-Tolles said the cost of running the program was putting CCS $60,000 in the red each month. Six months ago, the nonprofit organization made an appeal to the community for financial help that did pay off. The influx of donations matched with efforts by the director to increase productivity lowered the monthly debt to $30,000. Still, a debt remained and the only solution apparent was closure.

CCS Board President John Greeley said it was a matter of losing one program to save a plethora of others.

“It has always been a struggle to make the books balance,” Greeley said. “We have subsidized (the behavioral health program) through our reserve funds that we have, but we just no longer could continue to do that.”

CCS board members passed a motion to terminate the program Feb. 29.

“We know it wasn’t a good decision for our clients but it’s the right decision for our agency,” Greeley said.

Other programs served by the agency include Meals on Wheels, Care-A-Van, the Bridge Adult Day Program and other senior services.

This isn’t the first time a program has fallen to the wayside for the bettering of the whole agency. In 2014, the Puddle Jumpers Developmental Learning Center closed. CCS also transitioned the Young Parent Healthy Teen program to the Zach Gordon Youth Center.

Ideally, any time CCS has to lose a program its leaders try to find an alternative for clients served. With the behavioral health program, it isn’t quite that simple.

Walker-Tolles said CCS will meet with JSD counselors to discuss which children — without breaking confidentiality — might need help in various schools. There will also be meetings with Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium leaders. The goal is to not only find resources for the children but also to find employment for skilled clinicians in the community. Walker-Tolles said it can be hard for any agency to recruit clinicians to move to Southeast Alaska, and with CCS’ program closing, 10 full-time staff members and 2 part-time staffers will lose their jobs.

Ideally, an agency would just take over the program entirely, instead of just taking on a patient here and there. But Walker-Tolles said no one can afford to do that. The shortcomings of Medicaid billing is a national issue; other nonprofits around the nation Walker-Tolles said she stays in contact with are dropping their behavioral health programs, too. When she told a state employee she wouldn’t be reapplying for a grant to run the program, they told her they weren’t surprised and that she wasn’t the only one.

Forty-four children in total (39 in Juneau and 5 in Hoonah) will lose access to CCS’ services in the coming months with an uncertain future ahead of them. Fifteen of those were just recently brought into the program during an expansion just a few months ago because of the growing waitlist. So many were in need, Walker-Tolles said, and they were trying to expedite their ability to serve the children.

“Parents are worried about kids being successful with this service going away,” Walker-Tolles said. “We’re concerned about kids falling through the cracks because the system has holes in it already, and that’s of great concern.”

• Contact reporter Paula Ann Solis at 523-2272 or paula.solis@juneauempire.com.

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