Regional News in Review: October 2015

DARTS is focus of second lawsuit

A former DARTS employer has filed suit against the West St. Paul-based nonprofit para-transit provider DARTS. Corbet Houle of Eagan filed the lawsuit in Dakota County District Court. He contends that DARTS fired him for raising concerns about bus maintenance problems.

Houle is claiming that DARTS defamed him and violated Minnesota’s whistle-blower law. The law prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who point out wrongdoing. Houle notes he has had difficulty finding work since he was fired. DARTS has denied the allegations.

DARTS had provided transportation for the elderly and people with disabilities for many years, before Metropolitan Council fired the nonprofit in 2014. Council officials said DART employees falsified records and didn’t properly maintain its buses. DARTS lost a five-year, $13.7 million contract. The controversy and change in service providers
caused widespread disruption for DART clients.

Houle was hired by DARTS in 2013 and served a general manager. In his lawsuit he contends that repeated requests for vehicle repairs and maintenance were deferred or ignored
by higher-ups in the organization. Former DARTS President Greg Konat and Subramanian “Kris” Krishnan, DARTS chief strategy and operations officer, are accused of ignoring the concerns. Houle got to the point that he was marking buses as “Do not operate.” But he claims that buses in poor condition continued to carry passengers.

Houle said he then informed Metropolitan Council staff about the problems during the 2014 audit.

This is the second lawsuit filed against DART. In November 2014 two other former DART officials said they too were fired for raising safety concerns. Current DARTS officials have denied the claims. (Source: Star Tribune)

 

SCHA, UCare see mixed results

The voices of South Country Health Alliance (SCHA) supporters have been heard as Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson ordered that the nonprofit be added as an option next year in 10 counties. SCHA had been shut out as an option after the state’s initial competitive-bidding process for Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare in July. The nonprofit health plan had lost 10 of its 11 counties. That meant losing 85 percent of the alliance’s customers — and possibly closing the 14-year-old business and displacing its nearly 100 employees.

But now Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare participants in those counties will be able to choose plans offered by South Country next year, and people already on alliance plans won’t have to switch.

“Steele County is pleased with the commissioner’s decision to allow South Country as an option,” said Laura Elvebak, Steele County administrator. “South Country is a collaboration of county governments in meeting the needs of some of our most vulnerable residents with a localized approach. We appreciate that Commissioner Jesson expedited the mediation process and was open to hearing the concerns of Steele County.

“As South Country is headquartered in Owatonna, not only does this decision help to maintain a valuable service to residents, but also maintain a quality employer within the county.”

Jesson’s order came after a three-person mediation panel held three days of expedited mediation, which is provided under state law, between Sept. 16 and Sept. 25 to consider the concerns of the counties. Of Minnesota’s 87 counties, 28 proceeded with mediation and 25 of those counties participated in an expedited process regarding the process results.

Counties, not health plans, prompted the mediation. South Country, UCare and other plans didn’t directly participate. UCare is in the middle of a lawsuit challenging the competitive bidding results.

Thus far UCare hasn’t fared as well. As a result of the same mediation, state regulators restored UCare in just one of 25 counties that had filed appeals. Fourteen counties won modifications to the bidding results, but only Olmsted County received permission to add UCare as a potential third insurer. St. Louis and Wright counties were permitted to negotiate with Medica as a potential third provider as well.

In another 11 counties, including Ramsey County, the state said the insurance options would remain the same. Adding choices in counties needs to be done carefully, because it weakens the state’s ability to strike a good bargain with a smaller number of insurers, said Jesson. (Sources: Owatonna Peoples Press, Star Tribune)

 

Research studies restricted

Vulnerable patients who are on 72-hour emergency holds cannot be recruited for research studies at the University of Minnesota. The decision took effect in September and is one of a number of changes underway at the university.

The policy change was made by an ethics panel as part of a larger effort to improve oversight and strengthen patient protections. A patient with schizophrenia died by suicide while he was enrolled in a drug trial in 2004. Patient Dan Markingson was recruit for a study while under court commitment order, by a university psychiatrist who was running a study, treating Markingson and advising a judge on the terms of Markingson’s commitment. State law no longer allows such a potentially coercive arrangement.

The Markingson case drew widespread attention and was the topic of scrutiny from the state legislative auditor.

University officials said that excluding patents on 72-hour holds from drug trials eliminates the potential for coercion, or even the appearance of coercion, according to Dr. Brian Herman, the university’s vice president for research. He said that the patients are in situation where they may not necessarily completely be of free will to make decisions about their participation in research.

Research ethics were targeted for major changes starting in March, suspending patient recruiting for 17 psychiatric studies. That followed two reports
critical of the university’s psychiatry department.  (Source: Star Tribune)

 

New hospital opens in Brooklyn Park

Children facing mental health issues and their families are getting more help, as the new PrairieCare pediatric mental health clinic opened its doors in September.

The 50-bed hospital in Brooklyn Park was opened to meet patient demand. PrairieCare opened a 20-bed hospital in Maple Grove four years ago but that facility quickly filled up. It’s a sign of the great need for pediatric mental health care in Minnesota.

A KARE-11 report featured a family whose teenage daughter faced a mental health crisis. Her family was fortunate to find her the proper care. But they wound up taking the last available bed at a facility. “We were lucky that there happened to be one bed left that night, otherwise I don’t know what we would have done,” the girl’s mother said.

The new facility will replace the Maple Grove facility, for a net gain of 20 beds. “Two to 10 times a day, people are calling, looking for our services and we’re unfortunately having to say ‘no’ because we’re full,” Todd Archbold, the chief development officer for PrairieCare said.

He explained that PrairieCare runs at 98 percent capacity year round. When there are no beds available, families are often sent to places where there are bed, as far away from the Twin Cities as Rochester or Fargo. PrairieCare CEO Dr. Joel Oberstar said that can be really tough on families.

“Aspects of depression or anxiety, for example, frequently hurt some family relationship. And when your child is admitted to a hospital very far away from where you live, it makes it difficult to get there and visit, difficult to participate in treatment. So we’re hoping the added capacity of this facility will help alleviate some of that burden,” he said.

The Minnesota Legislature also approved funding this year so that the state can add 150 new pediatric mental health beds over the next three years. (Source: KARE-11)

 

Starkey firings roil company

The September firing of top-ranking officials at Starkey Hearing Technologies has result in a lawsuit against the internationally known company. A former executive filed suit in October, contending that they lost their jobs after the stepson of Bill Austin, the company’s chief executive, wasn’t promoted. They are claiming that Austin created a hostile work environment, as well as breach of trust, defamation of character and spying.

Keith Guggenberger seeks damages in excess of $10.9 million. He was chief operations officer and one of a group of people fired abruptly. Guggenberger,
who worked at Starkey for 29 years, says he was wrongfully terminated and is owed $1.2 million in wages plus benefits. Former company president Jerry
Ruzicka and six other employees were also fired. Starkey leadership has denied wrongdoing.

The lawsuit claims that Austin marginalized Ruzicka after Austin’s stepson, sales and marketing senior vice president Brandon Sawalich, wasn’t promoted. It also claims that Sawalich intercepted emails once he learned that Ruzicka was planning to leave and start his own company. The firings began September 8-9 and allegedly targeted leadership close to Ruzicka. Guggenberger stated in the lawsuit that he had no intention of leaving Starkey.

Starkey is known for his work in technology to help people hear, and for its high-profile fundraising events. Its annual gala attracts international celebrities to the Twin Cities. (Source: Associated Press)