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Emotional crowd protests change at Rowan Homes

By Kathy Chaffin

Salisbury Post

In an emotionally charged meeting Monday night, residents of Rowan Homes, their families and concerned citizens sent an overwhelming message to Piedmont Behavioral Healthcare officials: “We don’t want another residential provider.”

Piedmont Behavioral Healthcare officials responded: “It’s a done deal.”

“The decision has been made,” said Deputy Area Director Pam Shipman, referring to Piedmont Behavioral’s decision to withdraw its request to renew the contract with Rowan Homes.

Almost 100 people turned out for the meeting, which was originally limited to the 33 Rowan Homes residents and their family members and/or guardians.

Piedmont Healthcare officials, however, agreed to open the meeting to Rowan Homes staff, concerned residents and the Post at the request of the residents.

Cynthia Benjamin, developmental disabilities provider relations manager, started the meeting by explaining the process for selecting a new provider. Residents and family members will be included on the committee that will interview the providers, she said.

Deborah Martin, the mother of one of the residents, said she had some concerns about the purpose of the meeting and distributed copies of a letter she had written. The first line read: “SCROOGE COMES TO ROWAN HOMES INC. IN THE FORM OF PBH!!!!!!!”

Martin said the way Piedmont Behavioral Healthcare officials went about informing residents of the decision to go with a new provider was “unethical and morally wrong.”

A letter was sent to her son, Benjamin Smith, at the group home, she said, even though he wasn’t capable of reading it.

When he heard about the change in providers, Martin said he became so upset that his blood pressure shot up, putting his fragile health at risk. “Nobody is going to make him sick over something this disturbing,” she said.

Martin commented on Piedmont Behavioral Healthcare’s timing in announcing its plans. “It is 10 days before Christmas,” she said, “and you have upset a lot of people.”

Piedmont Behavioral Healthcare, in a press release about the change in providers, said it anticipated that the change in management will occur on Feb. 1, 2007.

In her two-page letter, which she read at the meeting, Martin contended that the decision was based on money without consideration for Rowan Homes’ excellent job performance.

“And who will be the ones suffering if a new provider comes in?” she asked. “YES, THE CLIENTS AND THEIR FAMILIES.

“I beg of you not to change providers.”

Martin said Ralph Ketner, former CEO of Food Lion, helped her with the letter. “And he feels like Rowan Homes should be your provider,” she said.

Residents, their family members and concerned citizens applauded loudly, some even standing.

Others at the meeting objected to Piedmont Behavioral officials meeting with residents at Rowan Vocational Opportunities without informing their families or the Rowan Homes staff.

Cindy Pachis, whose son, Tim, is in the program, asked Benjamin and Shipman if it was true that they told the residents that they would have new vans and get to go on trips to Disney World and the beach when a new provider takes over.

Benjamin said they told the residents that they would still have vans, maybe even new ones, and that if they saved their money, they might could go to Disney World and the beach.

“That’s not the way they understood it,” Pachis said.

Her husband, Rick, wanted to know why they weren’t informed of the meeting at Rowan Vocational Opportunities.

Patricia Funderburk, whose daughter, Candace Boger, is in the program, said the Rowan Homes staff is like family to the residents. For some of them, she said it may be the only family they have.

Shipman said that most providers that have taken over residential programs in the past have kept the group home workers, but not the administrative staff.

Almost all of the people who spoke at the meeting urged Piedmont Behavioral Healthcare, which provides mental health services to five counties, to leave Rowan Homes as the provider. “I just don’t know why you mess with something that works,” one woman said.

Martin asked, “If the wheel is working, why are you breaking a spoke?”

She said Piedmont Behavioral officials had jumped the gun while Rowan Homes board members were still trying to negotiate the contract.

“I don’t want to hear about the other providers,” she said. “I’m happy with what you have.”

Shipman said it was a business decision. Rowan Homes wants $51.05 per resident per day to operate the six HUD group homes while the other residential programs only receive $41.05 per resident per day.

Jay Laurens, Rowan Homes’ executive director, said some of the other providers also receive supplemental funding from Piedmont Behavioral. An example of that is through the agency’s innovations waiver program, which provides such services as a one-on-one worker in residents’ vocational placement.

Rowan Homes only has two of its 33 residents in the program, he said, while another provider receives innovations waiver program funds for all of its residents.

Laurens said Rowan Homes and Piedmont Behavioral Healthcare reached an impasse in October of 2005 about the rate of funding.

At that point, Piedmont Behavioral agreed to increase its funding to Rowan Homes from $41.05 per resident per day to $51.05. Midway through the fiscal year, however, Laurens said the agency dropped it back to $41.05, promising to hire a third-party clinician to do an assessment of the services provided to determine if the additional funds were justified.

When the study was delayed, Laurens said the Rowan Homes board refused to sign a new contract before the current fiscal year started on July 1. In November, he said Piedmont Behavioral officials said the study showed the additional money was not needed.

Laurens contended that Piedmont Behavioral’s interpretation of the study was based on several inaccuracies, including such basic information as the number of residents and the number of residents needing more intensive services such as a one-on-one worker.

In a Dec. 12 e-mail to Rowan County Board of Commissioners Chairman Arnold Chamberlain, who represents the commission on the Piedmont Behavioral board, Area Director Dan Coughlin said the assessment “supports our decision.”

Ritter, however, in a Dec. 15 letter to Coughlin, wrote of her “concern and dismay about Piedmont’s decision to terminate its contract with Rowan Homes.”

Based on the quality of care given to the residents, she said Rowan Homes is the last group home program she would choose to terminate. “I urge you to reconsider your decision in the best interest of the consumers you serve,” she wrote.

Lloyd Messick wanted to know why Coughlin was not at the meeting.

“He was not able to come,” Shipman said.

Carolyn Layburn said, “If he cared about the residents, he would have been here.”

A few residents also spoke out.

“We’re not going to let you do this,” said Cedric Drye.

When Benjamin and Shipman said they were ending the meeting at 8 p.m. even though there were still people wanting to talk, Laurens pleaded with them to allow the residents to speak.

Several of them had their hands raised, he said, but never got called on to speak “and they gave up.” To not allow them a voice when the staff works so hard to educate them on their rights is “a big mistake,” Laurens said.

Benjamin and Shipman went ahead and ended the meeting.

When asked about the decision afterward, Benjamin declined to comment, referring all questions to Piedmont Behavioral’s public relations director, Stephan Tomlinson, who was also at the meeting.

Neither Benjamin nor Coughlin returned calls made by the Post on Monday. Tomlinson responded to questions on behalf of the agency.

Shipman said the decision to cut off comments was made in the interest of time. The meeting had already gone on for two hours, she said.

When asked if they had said anything about a time limit up front, she said they had not.

Maxey Sanderson, a Rockwell alderman, expressed concern to Tomlinson after the meeting about concerned citizens not being able to speak. He had a plaque the Rockwell Civitans had received from Civitan International for its work with Rowan Homes.

The community cares about Rowan Homes, he said.

Shipman and Brian Ingram, director of community operations for Piedmont Healthcare, were willing to speak about the agency’s decision.

“These are good people,” Shipman said about the Rowan Homes staff. “This is no statement about them. This is a fair business decision.”

The dispute over funding has been going on for two years, she said, and Piedmont officials decided they simply could not fund Rowan Homes at a higher rate than the others.

Though some of the residents didn’t get a chance to speak at the meeting, they expressed their concerns to the Post earlier in the day.

Several cried openly as they talked about their love for Laurens and the Rowan Homes staff.

Kerry Rothwell said Laurens had been like a father to her.

Jeff Jacobs described him as a good friend. “I’m not going to let them take Jay away from us,” he said. “This mess is going to have to stop because Jay has been there when I’ve needed a friend.”

Jamey Bridges said, “Jay and all the staff are like family to me … I’m going to put a stop to this.”

If someone else takes over the group homes, Rothwell said, “I’m going to pack up my stuff and move out.”

Janie Mattison said Laurens always has time to talk to her when she has a problem or question. “Jay is a man that’s really, really important to us,” she said.

Brenda Rooney, the newest resident in the program, said Laurens was her new best friend. “I don’t want him to leave,” she said before breaking into tears.

Josh Shephard called Piedmont Behavioral’s plans to contract with a new provider “completely ridiculous.”

“There must be some way to make it better,” he said. I think somewhere along the way, they made a mistake and they need to make it better.”

Tim Pachis wrote on a dry-erase board at the Rowan Homes office: “Save Rowan Homes for good.”

Contact Kathy Chaffin at 704-797-4249 or kchaffin@salisburypost.com.

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