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POLITICAL TENSION ADDRESSED; MIKELS CALLS FOR RESTRAINT IN COMMENTS ABOUT BEHAVIORAL HEALTH DEPARTMENT.

Byline: David Greenberg Daily News Staff Writer

County Supervisor Judy Mikels called Tuesday for officials to stop talking about personnel and financial problems at the Behavioral Health Department until several audits are complete.

In asking her colleagues and other officials to refrain from commenting, Mikels sought to diffuse a politically tense situation that has led to financial probes by federal, state and local agencies.

She said she met Monday with state Sen. Cathie Wright, a vocal critic of Behavioral Health, and that the Simi Valley Republican agreed to the gag order.

``In the interest of the patients, their families and employees of the Behavioral Health Department, Sen. Wright and I will stay in close contact as we cautiously await the results of the audits,'' Mikels said in a prepared statement.

``Numerous issues and concerns have been raised. Both Sen. Wright and I are confident that when the audits are complete, we will have all the facts needed to achieve resolution that protects the quality of care for the mentally ill,'' she said.

In addition to an audit by the state Department of Mental Health, which is expected in three weeks, county Chief Administrative Officer Lin Koester and the federal Health Care Financing Administration are conducting their own audits.

The federal agency is investigating whether the county should receive roughly $15 million in Medicare reimbursements for the eight-month period that the Behavioral Health Department was illegally merged with the county's Public Social Services Department.

And the CAO's Office is investigating Wright's allegations that money earmarked for mental health patients was funneled to the financially troubled Ventura County Medical Center.

Already, county Auditor Thomas Mahon has determined that Behavioral Health is facing a deficit of at least $430,500 for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

With the possible loss of health care reimbursements, the cost of solving the department's Y2K computer problems and an increase in the number of uninsured patients, that deficit could mount considerably.

``Certainly if there is no money, there is no treatment,'' said Ronald Thurston, a Ventura psychiatrist and a liaison for the Alliance for the Mentally Ill. ``It's a big concern. I don't know yet where it is all going to settle. Hopefully, the result will be a more efficient and medically sound system.''

Pierre Durand - whose Health Care Agency oversees the Behavioral Health Department - applauded Mikels' request for a gag order. He acknowledged that services to the county's 30,000 mentally ill residents could be adversely affected if the public's attention continues to focus on the political turf war revolving around the failed health care merger.

``It's not productive to patient care,'' Durand said. ``It could divert us away from the focus to the service of the patients. I'm very supportive of Supervisor Mikels' leadership on this issue.''

At the heart of the issue is the failed merger last year of Behavioral Health and Social Services into a massive, $171 million-a-year Human Services Agency.

Behavioral Health Director Stephen Kaplan orchestrated the merger and lobbied the supervisors for their approval, which they gave last April. But Kaplan also took the brunt of the blame when federal officials determined the merger to be illegal.

County supervisors rescinded the merger in December, and Kaplan resigned March 1, after being placed on a monthlong leave by Durand.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 10, 1999
Words:549
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