Regional News in Review - March 2011

Changes at Crisis Connection

Crisis Connection, a nonprofit telephone counseling service, is under new leadership. Oakdale-based Human Services Inc. (HSI) announced in February that it assumed control of the service.

Crisis Connection is more than 30 years old and operates out of the Minneapolis suburbs. It provides crisis counseling, intervention and referral. Last year news reports indicated that Crisis Connection was running into financial difficulty, the agency, which operates with the help of paid staff and many volunteers, has an estimated $1 million budget. But efforts to raise funds had fallen short.

HSI will attempt to restore Crisis Connection’s financial stability, said Mark Kuppe, HSI CEO. The new entity is called HSI-Crisis Connection LLC.

“Crisis Connection saves and improves thousands of Minnesotans’ lives, and so we want to do all we can to save Crisis Connection,” Kuppe told the Pioneer Press. “We have a vision for tapping into Crisis Connection’s unique expertise to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our mental health services, but first we need to work with the community to find a way to make their current services financially viable.”

Crisis Connection is Minnesota’s only 24/7 crisis hotline. A Star Tribune article published in 2010 described how the agency faced a crisis of its own due to tight funding. The agency fields more than 50,000 calls per year. One of the options to keep Crisis Connection going was to merge with another agency.

Crisis Connection fields Minnesota calls for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Minnesota Farmers’ Assistance Network and a men’s help line. Crisis Connection also supplements a Hennepin County mental health crisis line. But although residents throughout the state use Crisis Connection, many counties don’t provide funding for its services.

HSI is a community human service agency that works with children, adolescents, adults, the elderly and families who struggle with aging, transportation, chemical and mental health, & domestic and sexual abuse. It has four centers in Washington County. [Source: Pioneer Press, Star Tribune, HSI]


New service in Austin area

Housing Access Services has opened its doors to advance the consideration of consumer-controlled housing options by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are on a waiver through the Department of Human Services, their families, and others who help them. It serves people in the Austin area.
Consumer-controlled housing is housing arranged with the needs and preferences of the consumer in the forefront, rather than the needs and preferences of the service provider or service funder. Advocates said this type of housing clearly contributes to the well-being of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Housing alone is insufficient to support most persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the community. Supports and services are also crucial elements. These include advocacy groups serving people with disabilities, county and state elected officials and administrators, case managers, mortgage bankers, real estate professionals, housing developers, service providers and other members of the community in which people with disabilities live. More information is available by calling Tammy at 507-433-8994 ext. 103. [Source: Austin Daily Herald]


Two charged in Medicaid swindle

A Brooklyn Park couple was charged last month with swindling the state’s Medicaid program out of nearly $1 million by allegedly submitting false claims for home care and nursing services. Sole Provider Nursing Services allegedly billed the state’s Personal Care Assistance program (PCA) between 2006 and 2008 for home care of patients who were in the hospital and submitted claims for workers it didn’t employ. The charges against Sole Provider also says the agency submitted bills showing care aides working more than 24 hours in a single day and, in one case, 42 hours a day for a week straight.

In all, it alleges overbilling of $975,295. Named in the complaint were Anita Gayle Soledolu, 39, owner of Sole Provider Nursing Services, and her husband, Stephen Adewale Soledolu, 32. Media reports about the case have brought forward the 2009 Minnesota Legislative Auditor’s report which found hundreds of cases in which care agencies billed the state claiming that employees worked more than 24 hours in a day. Billing rules were changed after that and hour limits were placed on individual PCAs.

The Brooklyn Park agency has been under state scrutiny since 2008. “Fraud in programs intended to help the most vulnerable Minnesotans is unacceptable,’’ Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said in a statement.”We must do all we can to find and prevent it.’’

Medicaid, known in Minnesota as Medical Assistance, is a state-federal health insurance program for the poor, the disabled and the elderly poor. [Source: Star Tribune]


Wheelchair athletes can compete

High school athletes who use wheelchair will be racing around tracks this spring while still others will be putting the shot.

The Minnesota State High School League is adding three track and field events exclusively for athletes who use wheelchairs that will be effective this upcoming season. “Wheelers” is the term that refers to the athletes that compete on the track. Wheelers will be able to compete in 800-meter and 1600-meter events. Shot put will be the field events. The league board approved the change February 24.

This new division of competition will be available to athletes with permanent physical disabilities. Competition can begin during the regular season and participation in a minimum of three meets to qualify for section meets. Section competition will qualify athletes to the state meet this June.

There will be two classifications: Class 1 for athletes with disabilities of the lower extremities; Class 2 for athletes with disabilities that affect the lower and upper extremities.

“These new events will fill a void for a significant number of athletes in wheelchairs,” said Associate Director Jody Redman who oversees track and field. “This expands the opportunities for athletic competition for all students. We expect that our member schools will embrace this expansion of track and field to serve more student-athletes.”

There are some specific rules and specifications for the wheelchair competition on the track. For example, the wheelchairs may have only three wheels, two in the rear and one in the front. And, although it might seem obvious, the wheelchairs can be maneuvered only with the hands and arms.

For the shot put, the athletes have a little more flexibility in the type of chair that can be used, but scooters and “standing chairs” are not allowed. Assistance in holding the chair to limit excessive movement is allowed.

All of the competition for wheelchair racers must be separate from competition for athletes with able-bodies while shot-putters in chairs may compete alongside athletes with able-bodies. Team points will not be awarded for participation in wheelchair division events.

“Adding these events speaks directly to one of the league’s belief statements,” Redman said. “That is, ‘Participation in school-sponsored activities must be inclusive, not exclusive.’”

Minnesota becomes the seventh state to offer wheelchair track and field competition. [Source: Minnesota State High School League]



Clinic closing raises red flags

The closing of St. Paul’s La Familia Guidance Center in February is raising red flags for mental health advocates, who warn that it could be just the first clinic of several to close. Dwindling grant funds, tighter public dollars and a tough economy are buffeting many agencies. Some have already merged.

The 15-year-old counseling center served hundreds of low-income Latino families, as well as Hmong and East African clients, in their native languages. Based on St. Paul’s West Side, La Familia clinic served clients around the region. Its abrupt closure left families and social service agencies scrambling to find other services for clients. La Familia served more than 800 clients in 2009.

“They were one of the best organizations for working with folks from the Latino community, and referring them on, getting them connected with more direct services,” said Dave Haley, assistant to the director of Ramsey County Community Human Services, which has stepped in to steer the clients to new providers. Haley spoke to the Pioneer Press.

The center’s staff was given only three days’ notice, according to media reports. La Familia co-founder Jose Santos has indicated that the agency couldn’t sustain itself financially.

Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota, said changes in how the state supports low-income mental health patients most likely impacted La Familia’s finances. In 2010 Minnesota changed the General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC) program so that patients would have to check in with one of a handful of designated hospitals to access mental health services. The hospital, in turn, then had to refer patients to community mental health clinics or nonprofit counseling centers. That affected reimbursements, making things even tighter for clinics. Cuts to county aids from the state also affect how much counties can provide for mental health services. [Sources: Pioneer Press, Star Tribune]


Teen draw awareness to store access

A Minnesota teenager hopes her trip to the mall will lead to changes in the way stores are laid out. Abi Christopherson uses a wheelchair. She gave WCCO-TV video to show the difficulty she had navigating an American Eagle store at the Mall of America. Abi and her mom, Tracie Christopherson, said the store is discriminating.

“We were trying to find, ‘actually this sweatshirt’ and we could barely even get back there. We’re, like, bumping into things, everything,” Abi Christo-pherson said.

It was a trip meant to cheer up a girl that has been through so much.

Abi Christopherson has had 19 brain surgeries. The latest has her using a wheelchair to get around.

“All the aisles and racks and everything, there was just like no space to get through,” Abi said. The aisle inside the American Eagle store proved too narrow for Abi’s wheelchair.

Tracie Christopherson said an employee noticed their struggle. “We even had a clerk say, ‘Oh, I guess we’re not too wheelchair friendly, are we?’ and kind of giggled,” she said. She was so upset she fired off an email to the store’s corporate office, detailing her and Abi’s experience. Fifteen minutes later, the Christophersons got a reply.

“I got an automatic response email, saying, ‘We care about what people think’,” Tracie said. “It is one they send out to everybody.” A district manager contacted her days later with a promise to look into the complaint. Mother and daughter then decided to go back to the store and record their experience via video camera. Their video shows the difficulty they had getting around in the store.

“All aisles have to be a minimum of 36 inches. That is what is considered an accessible path of travel for somebody in a wheelchair,” said Margot Imdieke Cross, an accessibility specialist with the Minnesota State Council on Disability.

Abi said that all she wants is to be able to browse and not bump into things in her path.

For its part American Eagle told WCCO-TV that its stores are designed and built to be in full compliance with all codes including the Americans With Disabilities Act. See the video on wccotv.com [Source: WCCO TV]


Wheelchair thief is sentenced

A man who stole a wheelchair from a teenage girl with spina bifida will be locked up for 13 months. Chad Michael Dann, St. Paul, was sentenced in February to 19 months in prison. However, he was given credit for the 179 days he has already served in connection with the theft in Hugo in 2010

In addition to the prison time, Dann was assessed a $50 fine and ordered to pay $1,930 in restitution to the victim. The case was heard in Washington County District Court.

Dann, 35, was charged for breaking into the garage of a home in Hugo on Aug. 11 and driving off with the owner’s pickup truck. The girl’s TiLite 2GX Swing Away wheelchair was in the back.

Dann was arrested a few days later by Stillwater police when he sped off from a Target store in a truck matching the description of the stolen vehicle. He had tried to fill a fraudulent prescription at the Target store. Police found the wheelchair after a search.

He was also found guilty of fifth-degree drug possession and is serving a 19-month sentence concurrently with the theft charge. He was back in court March 7 for a jury trial concerning a burglary case, court records said. [Source: Star Tribune]

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