Commonwealth Journal

Local News

June 21, 2011

Oakwood suffers mass layoffs

Somerset — According to Bluegrass Oakwood management, it was the facility’s success that led to its recent downsizing — though that’s sure to come as small comfort to close to 200 former employees who are now out of work.

Rumors flew Friday as a large number of staff members at the Somerset facility for the developmentally disabled were let go, including doctors, RNs, LPNs, case managers, home managers, classroom and floor staff, and others. Attempts by the Commonwealth Journal to contact Oakwood management Friday afternoon for comment were unsuccessful, but Shannon Ware, CEO of Bluegrass Regional Mental Health-Mental Retardation, did speak with the CJ on Monday.

“I know it’s not comforting to say we’re a victim of our own success, but we have done what was mandated to us by the federal government,” said Ware. “It was time to readjust — ‘right-sizing’ for what our budget is now.”

Jill Midkiff, spokesperson for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS), the state organization which oversees Oakwood, told the Commonwealth Journal that as part of the facility’s long-term strategic action plan, Bluegrass Oakwood has been assisting people who want to live in a community setting move from the Oakwood Somerset campus.

The upside, as Midkiff noted, is that this creates more jobs out in the community. However, as a result of assessing the “census decrease” at Oakwood — that is, a substantial reduction in residents at the campus located along U.S. 27 — it was determined that fewer staff members were needed “to meet the needs of the people served at the facility,” as Midkiff put it.

The drop in numbers is dramatic: When Bluegrass Regional assumed day-to-day management of Oakwood, there were 240 developmentally disabled individuals staying at Oakwood. Today, there are only 124.

“As a result of this census decrease, and in order to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, staff reductions appear to be necessary,” said Midkiff. “We have worked in cooperation with Bluegrass to make these changes in the most sensitive fashion to continue to safeguard excellent care for the clients at the facility. The Cabinet also supports the facility's mission and the need for this specialized level of care.”

Unfortunately, the adjustment in employment came suddenly for those actually working at the facility, though the factors leading up to it had been a long time in the making, suggested Ware.

“Transitions out to the community don’t happen overnight,” she said. “One person might move out and it doesn’t cause a big change in the staffing pattern, but one day you look up and by then 50 people have moved out. It’s really hard to make staffing adjustments to that.”

Ware said that Bluegrass and the state both took a look at how many individuals were there to take care of at Oakwood versus the number of employees, and that the time came when they couldn’t “justify” keeping on the same number of staff members.

“It’s very sad, very remorseful for anyone to lose their job,” said Ware who added that she spent most of Monday talking with different departments at Oakwood and employees there, and will continue to do more of that this week.

“The folks that weren’t laid off feel bad because they lost some good colleagues,” said Ware. “We’re just trying to communicate with them and let them know what’s going on. ... The main thing is that people want to know this is not a prelude to something else: Oakwood is not shutting down. I’ve been assured by (CHFS) that they’re proud of the Oakwood facility and they intend for it to be around for a long time.”

As a result of the census decrease, the state slashed the annual budget it pays Bluegrass Regional to operate the facility, which has shifted its focus toward specialized treatment services instead of long-term housing for the mentally challenged. The previous contract amount of $69.9 million got cut down to a proposed $54.5 million, necessitating the cutbacks.

The layoffs happened from all over the staff — from the clinical personnel to the support team and more.

“What’s really good about Oakwood is the mixture of professional and direct care people,” said Ware. “We needed to take reductions from all positions so we could so have the same model in place, just at a smaller complement.”

Some reports from sources who contacted the Commonwealth Journal on Friday had Oakwood laying off in the neighborhood of 175 people. Ware said the actual number Friday was 168, but all told, closer to 200 positions have been phased out — “Only about 168 (of those) people were actively working,” she said.

“We’ve been in negotiations (with the state) for about three weeks,” continued Ware. “Some people were leaving anyway or retiring, so we froze those positions. So people have been hearing numbers between 150 and 200, because of some vacancies and some actual people (leaving).”

Prior to the layoffs, Oakwood employed close to 1,000 individuals.

Ware said that Bluegrass is “working with everybody individually” to see whether or not new employment options within the non-profit organization’s larger structure would be a possibility.

“I can’t tell you that everybody will find a spot, but anything Bluegrass is providing (employment-wise), any openings, we’ll be working with those (laid-off) folks to see if we can find them something else,” said Ware. “Instantly, that’s going to be hard. ... Ultimately, the jobs will be in community homes, it’s just hard to know when they’ll materialize, but we will keep in close contact with the people who were displaced and try to put them somewhere else the best we can.”

The Commonwealth Journal obtained a copy of the letter signed by facility director David Phelps that was sent to the parents and guardians of Oakwood clients. It stated that “negotiations with the Commonwealth of Kentucky have been ongoing the last few months” regarding the fiscal year 2012 budget, and “due to continued struggles with economic shortfalls, Bluegrass Oakwood will experience a significant budget/contract reduction” and that management staff “have been meeting and developing places to reduce our expenditures.”

The letter pledged that “the care and safety of the individuals we serve (will) remain our top priority” and that though “the layoffs will be significant and will affect every area/department at this facility,” they will “in no way jeopardize the care and services provided,” and that the staff-to-client ratio “will remain at a safe and sufficient level, and all programming and services will continue as before without interruption.”

It also said that it is “no longer feasible to operate homes with less than four or five individuals occupying the residence.”

When asked whether some functions were disrupted, such as classrooms shut down due to lack of staff as some had reported to the CJ, Ware dismissed that and said that while some consolidation was going on — for instance, a home might be left with only a couple of residents, meaning it could be closed and the residents moved to another home to save utility and operational costs — “it was a planful change; there was not a bad reaction.”

Ware added that three homes were to be closed as a result of patient consolidation.

Ware acknowledged that these are bad economic times anyway, meaning things could be rougher on those who lost their jobs. However, she had great praise for the Oakwood staff and Pulaski County itself, saying that it’s “an outstanding community full of good workers and good people, and we’ve appreciated being part of the community, and we’re going to continue to be here.”

Bluegrass Oakwood, the home, education, and treatment facility for developmentally disabled individuals, was scheduled to receive another visit at the end of April from court-appointed monitor Dr. Nirbhay Singh as a sort of check-up for the once ailing facility. Oakwood nearly closed several years ago do to the loss of Medicaid funding due to numerous citations for abuse and neglect.

Eventually funding was restored, however, and the facility started its new phase, where there was a shift to transition residents out into community settings — a model where Oakwood helps the higher-functioning developmentally disabled get on their feet and puts them into position to succeed outside its walls.

The results of Singh’s April visit have not been released yet. Ware did say the exit interviews were glowing, however, and that the surveyors “could not compliment the facility enough” afterwards.

“They said we’re the model for the rest of the country; we’re doing it right,” said Ware, “(and) the fact that we’re smaller is a sign that we’re doing it right.”

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