Oregon Health Authority Has Mishandled Hundreds of Thousands of Federal Money Dedicated Towards Mental Health, Audit Reports
Mental health is a bit of a divisive subject in this country. Sometimes it’s highly advocated for, and other times it’s wholly ignored for the sake of putting tax dollars elsewhere. Well unfortunately, the latter had happened in the state of Oregon.
Detailed in an eight-page review, federal auditors had brought notice to one group in particular: Oregon Health Authority (OHA), a federal organization dedicated to using granted taxpayer money to instate changes to our health systems and provide coverage for those who need it. Their area of jurisdiction also covers mental health, which is objectively as important as physical health. And yet, there has been an oversight when it comes to grants given specifically for mental health, with potentially more than half a million dollars put elsewhere.
This vital information, which had been obtained via public records request by the Capital Chronicle, has quite a bit important information, detailing how the agency in question had not adequately informed the federally-mandated advisory council about where the half a million dollars had gone.
So what are the specifics? Let’s delve right in.
The Audit Itself
The audit had a litany of useful information contained within, but when it comes to the situation at hand, the review had boiled it down to three main problems.
- Those of the advisory council were unable to, or did not have the opportunity to, review the application for mental health block grants from the state.
- During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, OHA, who also provides administrative support for the advisory council, had failed to hold council meetings for two whole years, and this is despite the fact that multiple members had been requesting one during that time. In the report, federal officials described this failure to hold even a single meeting to be “ineffective”.
- OHA had signed off on an agreement to dedicate a total of $574,228 towards the remodeling of a psychiatric residential treatment facility for children run by the nonprofit organization Looking Glass Community Services in Eugene. This is important because the grants do not allow the funds to go to construction or any major facility improvements.
What the Money Was Spent On
As previously stated, the money went towards remodeling the psychiatric residential treatment facility in Eugene, but what are the specifics?
Once again, this information was obtained by the Capital Chronical through a public records request.
The money, according to public records, was used to:
- Remodel bathrooms
- Install new fire sprinklers
- Put in new windows
- Add a new security system
- Other small miscellaneous improvements
- Training staff so the facility would be able to serve up to 20 youths instead of 12. This, unlike the rest, was an appropriate and approved use of funds.
Response From Oregon Health Authority
So what did the agency itself have to say? Well in an email sent by Tim Heider, the spokesperson for OHA to OL, he said that the agency was still awaiting determination from the federal agency that would dictate whether or not the use of the funds for remodeling was even allowable.
“OHA has been transparent and forthright with SAMHSA and has provided all related documentation,” said Heider.
He also stated that Looking Glass were willing to reimburse the state if they needed to, but the nonprofit in question did not respond for comment.
He’s essentially saying that the OHA approved use of over half a million dollars for remodeling that was strictly not allowed to begin with. Now that all the construction is done and the OHA have been caught failing to report vital information to the council, he’s saying that Looking Glass, a nonprofit for mental health services that have already spent the money, will reimburse the half a million if need be. If you’re finding this to be a little absurd, you’re not alone.
Response from the Council
The advisory council members, who were supposed to be informed of this information to begin with, have decided to weigh in.
One of the most prominent voices was that of Kevin Fitts, who had been a longtime advocate for mental health. According to the Capital Chronicle, he was “alarmed” by the report. He went on to ask, “How many checkpoints does this process have and how many people who have been educated and understand this process didn’t do their job? The checks and balances have failed here.”
Another thing he noted was how the report itself may not be getting the full picture, and that much of the money may have been spent elsewhere without any accounting. He was reported stating,
“There may be an awful lot of other issues around compliance and misappropriation we don’t know about because we haven’t had an audit of that.”
Another council member, Linfoot, had the same sentiment. She highlighted a large problem being the fact that the council was made up of volunteers, many of them with full-time jobs of their own. They were often given grant applications and documents with very little time to look over them, if any time at all.
She was reported as saying, “We’ve complained about that for a very, very long time. That was frustrating from that point of not being able to really have our voice heard and do things that we would hope would make services better for people.” She also stated her surprise that the OHA would have approved the money for a construction project of all things. “That was shocking that somebody didn’t say, ‘Hey, we’re not supposed to do that.’”
Tim Heider, spokesman for OHA, had commented on this as well in his email.
“We understand and acknowledge their disappointment. We’ve discussed these concerns. Regular meetings have resumed, and we are continuing to work toward our shared goal to provide the best available system of care and to improve the mental and behavioral health of all Oregonians.”
There is a new behavioral health director of OHA, Ebony Clarke, who started the job back in February. Clarke pledges to work with the council to make the oversight process more transparent through careful steps. Whether we can count on this or not remains to be seen.