With leadership change, morale improves, stability returns to Sound Community Services

New London - Ten weeks after the departure of its executive director amid reports of questionable agency practices and patient care issues, Sound Community Services remains under the scrutiny of state mental health officials, but with tangible signs of progress.

"We expect to be closely monitoring Sound for some time and we expect progress to continue to occur in increments," Mary Mason, spokeswoman for the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, said in an e-mail message Friday.

Department staff are meeting with the agency's leaders weekly to keep tabs on progress toward goals agreed upon by the department, Sound's board of directors and the new leadership, she said.

The agency, the region's largest provider of outpatient psychiatric services for adults, lifted a moratorium on new patients as of June 1 that had been in place since the winter, Mason said.

Sound now has three full-time medical staff members to fill and administer prescriptions, ending a backlog of patients who previously had been unable to get timely appointments or establish an ongoing relationship with a doctor, said Dr. Stephen Vance, executive director of outpatient services at the agency since April 1.

"There's consistency there now," said Gino DeMaio, executive director of operations and administration.

DeMaio, Vance and two other administrators - Lance Niles, corporate compliance and client rights officer, and Jessica DeFlumer-Trapp, director of programs and operations - are now leading the agency as a team, said Jane Cable, board chairwoman. Cable said the board this month approved a fiscal 2014 budget of about $8.6 million after a thorough "unpacking" of the current budget. Most of the private, nonprofit agency's revenues come from state and federal grants and Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements.

The team took over after the departure of Executive Director Gail Lawson on April 16. Last week, two administrators closely allied with Lawson - Chief Informatics Officer Christopher Bish and Chief Financial Officer Cindy Kirchhoff - also left. Cable declined to discuss their departures. Attempts to reach Kirchhoff and Bish for comment were unsuccessful.

State audit

In March, The Day reported that Lawson, Bish and Kirchhoff charged more than $220,000 worth of airline, hotel, restaurant and retail charges to agency credit cards over an 18-month period. The three were involved in another company being run within the agency that provided consulting services to other nonprofits on medical records systems.

An examination of the agency's financial records by the state auditors of public accounts is not yet complete, state auditor John Gerogosian said this week. Mason said the state mental health agency cannot comment on the propriety of the expenses incurred by Lawson, Bish and Kirchhoff until the auditors issue a final report.

"If ... any improprieties are identified, DMHAS will take immediate necessary steps to ensure that taxpayer funds are used appropriately and clients are provided with the highest quality care," Mason said.

DeFlumer-Trapp also said the agency would not comment until the audit is complete. During an interview this week, Cable and the members of the leadership team sais they preferred to talk about the "forward-focused" agenda.

Vance said that after Lawson's departure, "there was this huge release of joy and creativity" among the staff.

The agency also has continued moving forward on a plan to consolidate services. Earlier this month, the Oasis Center, a social and educational center for clients, moved from Bank Street into the agency building at 21 Montauk Ave., site of its administrative offices and other services. By January, the outpatient clinic also is expected to move into that building from its current State Street location.

The agency also has improved it relationship with the community, rejoining regional meetings of mental health service providers, Mason said. Jennifer Gross, associate director of the Eastern Regional Mental Health Board, an independent agency that evaluates psychiatric services, said relationships between Sound and other agencies had been "strained" but the new leadership "is committed to establishing partnerships" and is working to establish a "collaborative culture."

Both Gross and Mason said positive steps have been taken to rebuild staff morale after an unusually high turnover rate. The morale and turnover issues came to light last summer after a group of former employees made public a letter to the board of directors urging action. About 130 employees work for Sound Community Services.

Now, Gross said, "staff morale is way up."

Mason said staff have received training about their operating budgets and are meeting with the leadership team "to identify other areas that might improve staff morale."

"They're here, they're committed and they believe in what they do," DeMaio said. In addition to counseling and psychiatric care for about 700 outpatients, Sound also provides case management services for about 180 people, supportive housing for about 40 clients and outreach to about a dozen homeless clients.

Board responsibilities

Information obtained by The Day through a Freedom of Information request indicates that the state took an active role both in urging the board to take actions that led to Lawson's departure, and in helping Sound to rebuild.

In an April 26 email message, Cheryl Jacques, executive director of the Southeastern Mental Health Authority, a division of DMHAS, stated that Sound leadership told her "they have had little information about the fiscal side of their operations ... programs have never reviewed their operating budgets..." DMHAS then provided the service of a financial official "so that this part of the operations can become more functional," she wrote.

Jacques attended the May 20 meeting of the Sound board, receiving thanks for her "candor and support" from Niles in a May 22 email message. Mason, the DMHAS spokeswoman, said Friday that Southeastern Mental Health Authority leaders met recently with Sound's board and ... "expressed our commitment to work with the new leadership structure."

Gross said she is hopeful that board members now have a better understanding of their responsibilities. During the months of turmoil, she said, "they were reluctant to step forward and take action in the face of complaints."

Cable, however, said the board is "excellent," noting that they stayed in the voluntary posts despite difficult issues. The 12-member board has had a few recent departures for reasons unrelated to those issues, she said.

"Nobody left as a result of that," she said.

The leadership team will remain in place for the foreseeable future, she said, with no one person serving as the "chief" administrator. That will provide a system of "checks and balances," Niles said.

DeMaio said the past 2½ months have been challenging, but he and the rest of the team feel gratified at what's been accomplished.

"It's been a whirlwind," he said. "We're wiped out, but in a good way."



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