BHR employees launch weekend strike

The OlympianMarch 14, 2014 

Jeff Nogler, a mental health aide at BHR's Evaluation and Treatment Center, participates in a strike Friday morning on Martin Way.

ANDY HOBBS — Staff writer

Employees of Behavioral Health Resources began their weekend-long strike Friday in response to failed contract negotiations.

Picketers gathered outside eight BHR offices in Thurston, Mason and Grays Harbor counties to chant their grievances over the mental health provider’s management and financial troubles.

SEIU 1199NW represents 178 employees out of BHR’s total workforce of 293. The strike will end at 7:59 a.m. Monday. BHR will cancel outpatient services this weekend, but will provide “crisis response services” in all three counties. Officials from BHR and the union said they will continue negotiations, which have yet to be scheduled.

Gary Holland, a nurse at BHR’s Evaluation and Treatment Center in Olympia, joined several sign wavers along Martin Way. Holland is unsure whether the organization will survive the rest of 2014.

“The management that’s in right now has been driving BHR into the ground on a rocket sled,” said Holland, an employee for four-plus years. “They keep running into extreme financial difficulties and then request the employees to bear the weight of those bad decisions.”

The union’s original labor contract expired in March 2013, and after several negotiations, BHR presented its final offer last November. To avert this weekend’s strike, BHR and union representatives had met Wednesday, but were unable to reach an agreement.

One key conflict includes an increased cost for employee medical benefits. The union has also offered to pay higher premiums and forgo wage raises. Another sticking point is that the union wants the right to bargain for a new health plan in 2015.

Since December 2012, BHR’s cash flow has shrunk by about $2 million. However, the allegations of mismanagement are distractions, said BHR spokeswoman Alliea Phipps. She noted that the two main issues are productivity and the higher cost of health care benefits. To avoid bankruptcy, BHR is working to increase the number of “billable hours” for clinicians by reducing the number of no-show appointments, Phipps said.

Roughly one-third of clients are no-shows, which is a common problem in the mental health industry. BHR pays clinicians regardless of whether a client shows up. However, no-shows are not considered “billable hours,” and BHR is not reimbursed from the regional support network that distributes funding. Adding to the financial distress, BHR recently had to repay $447,000 to the regional support network for two years worth of group services that did not qualify as billable, according to an audit.

BHR’s goal is to ensure clinicians adhere to a productivity standard of five billable hours per day, as stipulated by a 2011 contract. Phipps said “performance counseling” has helped increase billable hours. Efforts to reduce no-shows include more engagement with clients, providing transit to appointments when needed, and “closing the books” on clients who consistently miss appointments, Phipps said.

Founded in 1956, BHR provides mental health and addiction services to 10,000 low-income people in Thurston, Mason and Grays Harbor counties.

A second union that represents employees, OPEIU Local 23, will not strike. In a statement issued to the media, union business manager Alan Jacobson called on employees and management to work together for a solution.

 

“Their fight is our fight,” Jacobson said. “We support the clinicians in their strike for a fair contract.” 

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869 or ahobbs@theolympian.com

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