Regional News in Review – February 2016

More Starkey Hearing woes Starkey Hearing Technologies continues to be roiled by litigation and claims of wrongdoing. In January Julie Miller, a […]

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More Starkey Hearing woes

Starkey Hearing Technologies continues to be roiled by litigation and claims of wrongdoing. In January Julie Miller, a 39-year Starkey employee and former executive assistant, sued Starkey. She is accusing the firm of breaching her employment contract and dismissing her for being married to a Starkey official who was fired. The company responded by accusing Miller of receiving payments from a secret account.

Miller’s complaint, filed in Hennepin County District Court, accuses Starkey of violating the Minnesota Human Rights Act, of breach-of-contract and of reneging on its promise to pay her a “long term services and loyalty bonus” severance that should have been equal to one week of pay for every year of service. For Starkey, the litigation is just the latest chapter featuring lawsuits and countersuits between the company and several former executives and employees.

Several lawsuits accuse owner Bill Austin and some family members of improprieties at the hearing aid manufacturer. Company leadership in turn accuse the fired executives of engaging in wrongdoing. Recently Starkey accused fired President Jerry Ruzicka of stealing millions after he filed a whistleblower lawsuit alleging that Austin retaliated against him and withheld past and future wages. In Ruzicka’s whistleblower suit filed last month, he accused Austin, Austin’s stepson, Brandon Sawalich, other family members and the company of diverting millions of dollars from the company, of weakening its employee stock ownership program, and of submitting false tax write-offs and altered documents.

Ruzicka also accused Austin of selling hearing aids as new that were made with damaged, used or refurbished parts, and of retaliating against him for reporting improprieties within the company. Company leaders have in turn accused Ruzicka of theft. (Source: Star Tribune)



Paez out of superintendent search

Candidate Sergio Paez will not be the next superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools, the school board decided last month. Paez emerged as the top candidate as a result of a national search. But questions
arose after allegations surfaced regarding staff at his former district abusing special education students.
He currently leads Holyoke Public Schools in Massachusetts.

Despite stepped-up outreach to community members after the allegations became public, school board members said they weren’t comfortable with him in the top spot.

“Obviously I’m disappointed,” Paez said following the decision. “The situation is unfortunate what happened in Holyoke. I produced all the information, but as any superintendent we respect the decision they made. And I’m wishing the best to the city of Minneapolis and they find the right candidate.” (Source: KMSP-TV)


Waiting lists are whittled down

The number of Minnesotans with disabilities who have to wait a long time for critical social services has fallen sharply in recent months as the state removes long-standing barriers. While that is welcome news for people who have waited years for services, many people remain in limbo. The Star Tribune reported that state officials are pressuring counties to spend more of the money allocated annually for assistance.

Minnesota has among the longest waiting lists in the nation for the highly coveted form of assistance, known as a Medicaid “waiver.” In some cases, adults who could be living in their own apartments or working in mainstream jobs have been stuck in their parents’ homes, unable to obtain services. Some had waited a decade or more for services, while millions of dollars set aside for services had gone unspent in their counties.

“We are making great progress,” said Alex Bartolic, disability services director at the Department of Human Services. “A lot more people are receiving services than in the past, and that should be celebrated.”

A court report issued in January shows hundreds of people who have been on waiting lists for community services for months, even years, are now getting help. About 1,100 people were moved off waitlists in the last nine months of 2015, cutting the overall backlog by 23 percent statewide. Nearly 4,000 applicants remain on county waiting lists for assistance.

In Hennepin County alone, officials are approving disability waivers at quadruple the rate of the past several years, resulting in more than 200 people being moved off the county’s waitlist last year.

Media attention has placed a spotlight on the waiting lists and has forced reforms. (Source: KSTP-TV, Star Tribune)


Fatality raises safety concerns

A man in a wheelchair was killed after being struck by a light-rail train in south Minneapolis in January, at a crossing near several group homes. Area residents and disability rights advocates said the crossing has been a concern and needs to be fixed.

The latest incident happened along the Blue Line near E. 32nd Street. The victim, identified as 61-year-old Daniel Wesse, died hours after his injuries. His death was ruled an accident. Wesse lived at a Dungarvin group home near the train station. “He was crossing and then his wheel got caught. He wasn’t tipping. He was leaning,” said his friend Bill Pasco. Pasco witnessed the accident.

If crossing the light-rail tracks from one side, people in wheelchairs have two options. One is to navigate the snow and ice before crossing on the other side. And the other option is to move through the few feet between the crossing arm post and a drop-off, without wheels going over the edge. Justin Page, an attorney with the Minnesota Disability Law Center, indicated that the downtown crossings are often cleared better than the south Minneapolis one. “It was always a concern of mine especially after a snowfall event,” he said.

The Metropolitan Council in December 2015 initiated a review of Metro Transit’s safety procedures and equipment on light rail lines after four pedestrian accidents in just five days. Council chairman Adam Duininck also called for a review of communication and outreach efforts “to amplify the message that safety is a shared responsibility.” (Source: KMSP-TV)



Anoka center is criticized

A federal report states that Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center, the state’s second-largest psychiatric
hospital, could lose millions of dollars in critical federal funding if it fails to correct long-standing threats to patient safety. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) put Minnesota on notice that it was in “immediate jeopardy” of losing its ability to bill the federal government for services, according to a state memo issued last week. The state has been given until March 5 to complete the plan, according to a letter from CMS.

Underscoring the urgency of the safety crisis, new Commissioner of Human Services Emily Johnson Piper, has visited Anoka-Metro twice since her appointment, even meeting with frustrated workers at the hospital on Christmas Day.

“Changes need to start now, and the solutions will require both short and long term actions,” Piper wrote in a recent memo to employees.

A surge in violence and staffing issues vex state officials as they work to correct problems or face the loss of a needed $3.5 million per year in federal funding. Hospital staff said conditions have deteriorated since adoption of a law two years ago known as the “48-hour rule.” In an effort to keep people with mental illnesses out of county jails after being arrested, the law required state psychiatric facilities to admit jail inmates within 48 hours after being committed as
mentally ill by a judge. Many people were sent directly from jails to Anoka-Metro without undergoing psychiatric assessments or having their medications reviewed, resulting in a surge of violence and unruly behavior. (Source: Star Tribune)


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