Mental Health Board wants to end impasse with client agency

CRYSTAL LAKE – A McHenry County Mental Health Board committee wants to extend an olive branch to a client agency in hopes of resolving an outstanding audit showing a number of funding irregularities.

Its Ethics and Compliance Committee directed staff members Wednesday morning to approach The Advantage Group in the hopes of working out differences that would resolve problems and ensure the agency’s continued survival on behalf of clients in need.

The meeting comes a week after the full Mental Health Board, dominated by new members, agreed to give the adolescent drug- and alcohol-abuse treatment center $49,000 to help keep it afloat – a decision that prompted the resignation of one of the board’s last remaining veterans.

The Advantage Group unsuccessfully sued the Mental Health Board last year after it cut off its funding in the wake of the audit, alleging the board was trying to wipe it out so it could allocate more funds to agencies it prefers.

The treatment center is also the focus of an ongoing investigation by the Office of the Inspector General at the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services.

Committee member Carrie Smith said a middle ground needs to be explored different from the recommendation in the initial audit asking for a $1.08 million recoupment of all billings to the Mental Health Board from 2009 through 2011.

The Mental Health Board receives revenue from a special county property-tax levy that is disbursed annually to agencies working with people who have mental illnesses and disability.

“If we take the hardest line possible, then [The Advantage Group] is not there ... and that goes against the reason why I joined this board,” Smith said.

But member Don Larson, the board’s longest-serving member and one of the two votes against the $49,000 payment, found agreement when he said the issue must be resolved before any further funding can be considered.

“I’m not willing to advance any sort of money until we have some settlement,” Larson said.

The other vote against the payment – Brett Wisnauski – tendered his resignation to County Board Chairwoman Tina Hill after the Aug. 27 vote.

He is the seventh member to either step down or be ousted in the past year. Wisnauski called the $49,000 vote the last straw in what he called the ongoing “politicization” of the Mental Health Board, which is appointed by the County Board.

“By failing to recognize that the granting of monies to The Advantage Group to be fraught with ethical and fiduciary pitfalls, they plunged forward to award even more money to an organization that is not a funded entity for the [McHenry County Mental Health Board] and with whom there exists unresolved financial accounts involving the receipt of taxpayer money,” Wisnauski wrote.

Advantage Group Executive Director Pat Owens, who did not attend the meeting, said Wednesday afternoon that the agency would be happy to accept an invitation to a dialogue. Owens said her agency would like to apply for Mental Health Board funding for fiscal 2014.

“Our agency and me personally are fully interested in resolving this issue and getting on with our mutual mission to service kids in this community,” Owens said. “We are in full agreement with that approach.”

But the issue with the audit first must be resolved. The window the agency had to appeal it under Mental Health Board rules has long passed – the initial audit report was released exactly one year before Wednesday’s meeting.

The audit identified a significant number of issues with The Advantage Group’s records, from billing for unapproved services and noncompliance with Medicaid regulations to using Mental Health Board funds in an inconsistent manner from its funding agreement.

In one instance highlighted Wednesday for the committee by staff members, the audit found that a November 2011 group therapy session for 18 clients was not billed as a group but by client, at $60.32 each.

In its federal lawsuit dismissed in April, The Advantage Group alleged the Mental Health Board was trying to push the Crystal Lake-based nonprofit “to the brink of extinction” by inappropriately burdening it in an effort to eliminate it to give others preferential treatment. The Mental Health Board alleged the lawsuit was nothing more than an attempt to stop the consequences of being “caught red-handed.”

The inspector general’s office does not comment on ongoing investigations. It subpoenaed the Mental Health Board’s records pertaining to The Advantage Group last October, according to records obtained by the newspaper.

The Mental Health Board has been weathering its own crisis since 2012 with an exodus of top leadership and heavy turnover on the board as questions regarding its budget and spending practices have increased.

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