Mental Anguish

Rescuing the mentally ill has brought millions to the Mental Health Corporation of Denver--as well as complaints of coercion, mismanagement and neglect.

"I looked at some of his contact sheets," Thomas says, "and they were mostly five- or ten-minute contacts, which make the bills high, while most of the rest of us were out working like dogs."

In early October, Thomas and five other members of his team signed a memo to a supervisor complaining about Steinert. They claimed that Steinert's outside activities, including a second job at a corrections facility and classes he was taking toward a master's degree, were interfering with the team's ability to get its work done; that he was frequently unavailable for emergency after-hours calls and rarely was in the office on Sundays, when he was scheduled to work a ten-hour shift; that he seemed to receive preferential treatment in scheduling shift changes or vacations; and that client care seemed to be suffering.

One of Steinert's clients had recently been moved into an apartment with only a mattress and no food, they reported; another was expected to shop at 7-Eleven "because Mike does not take him to the store." Others didn't appear to be receiving sufficient contact with him to function in their current living situations.

Around the same time, Thomas hired a private investigator at his own expense to conduct surveillance on Steinert on Sundays. "We found out he wasn't working on Sundays. He wasn't even coming into the office," Thomas says.

Thomas's sleuthing eventually led to a meeting with assistant deputy director Andrew Keller, who informed him that MHCD was considering terminating him for his "unprofessional behavior" in having Steinert followed. Thomas was stunned.

"It was crazy," he says. "He's sitting there saying, 'Maybe we can reduce it to probation,' and I'm saying, 'I didn't do anything wrong.'"

Rather than wait for MHCD to decide his fate, Thomas resigned earlier this month. Steinert turned in his resignation two weeks later, following a meeting with MHCD management.

Steinert says he did nothing wrong, either. He resigned, he says, because "I didn't feel I had to defend myself against this. It had gone too far as it was. I was ready to move on, and the attention that Steve brought on me by basically violating my rights and having me followed brought up a lot of issues."

Steinert says that his colleagues never brought their concerns to him and that he never even saw the memo or the complaints it raised. He describes the dispute as a difference in "style" of case management that had nothing to do with client care.

"I was taking care of my caseload," he insists. "Everybody has a different style of doing it. You can take on any number of things when you're dealing with a person with a chronic mental illness. There's just tons of things you could help with. Some people can't get it done in fifty hours a week; others seem to keep their caseload in check and get more creative."

While there may have been "some miscommunication" about his being allowed to work at home on Sundays, he says, his supervisors knew about his outside activities and approved his work schedule. And he denies that any of his clients were deprived of essential services; for example, the man who was moved into an apartment with only a mattress "purchases his own food and eats with his girlfriend at her apartment," and the move occurred on a weekend, when he couldn't obtain furniture from MHCD's warehouse. The real issue, in his view, is the lack of experience among most case managers--Steinert himself worked at MHCD for only a year and a half but says he has five years in the mental-health field--and the mixed signals they receive about how they're supposed to be treating their clients.

"We got a lot of different messages from administrators about how to manage our caseload," he says. "A good number of the people are relatively green, fresh out of school--and may not even have a bachelor's in the human services area. Some of them have trouble maintaining boundaries."

MHCD's McGuirk says he investigated the complaints against Steinert thoroughly and found no evidence of improper billing. "We're satisfied that client care has not been compromised," he says. "The individual involved resigned, following discussion of the issues. That's as much as I want to say about that."

In all, six out of eight members of Thomas's team have resigned or put in for transfers in recent months. McGuirk says the problems that surfaced there are isolated ones and don't reflect the overall accomplishments of the team, which moved more than thirty clients out of boarding homes over the past two years and placed twenty in apartments.

But Thomas and his colleagues aren't the only ones raising questions about MHCD's billing practices. For years boarding-home operators have complained about excessive or double billing of their residents for cursory visits by MHCD staff. Harold Harmer, the owner of Highlands, charges that MHCD staffers used to show up at social functions at the home long enough to say hello and gather the names of those present--and then billed each eligible resident's coverage for a "group activity" or "group therapy" visit.

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