Herald-Leader Editorial

Bluegrass board failed in its duties; mental health agency needs reform

Mental health agency needs reform

December 28, 2012 

Here's hoping that Shannon Ware's retirement provides a fresh start for the board that oversees the main non-profit provider of mental health care in Central Kentucky.

To become an effective force for accountability, the 20 volunteers from 17 counties will have to change their policies, institutional habits and, perhaps most of all, their attitudes.

They also should amend their bylaws to require more business and financial expertise on a board that oversees a $150 million a year operation, employing 2,100 people and serving 30,000 clients.

Also, while institutional memory is valuable, the Bluegrass Regional Mental Health-Mental Retardation Board should take steps to recruit more new members whose fresh perspectives won't be clouded by preexisting loyalties.

One thing is certain. The board was asleep at the wheel as outgoing CEO Ware and her husband, the former CEO Joseph Toy, feathered their financial nests and those of their inner circle in the central administration.

While front-line caregivers toiled for low wages and went without raises, Toy and Ware together took home more than $1 million in total compensation in 2010.

The board's disengagement comes through all too painfully in state Auditor Adam Edelen's recent report on an audit that was spurred by John Cheves' reporting in the Herald-Leader.

One of many examples: The board has no policy or process fro anonymously reporting concerns or wrongdoing. In 2008 when a former employee alerted a board member that Toy, then the president and CEO, and Ware, a vice president, were involved in a romantic relationship — "an inherent conflict of interest," according to the auditor — the board member advised the retiree to file a formal grievance. Board members informally discussed the conflict but never took any action.

Later when the relationship was widely known, prompting Toy to resign as CEO, the board hired him for $200,000 a year to oversee a small spin-off company. That decision did prompt the resignation of one board member, who told auditors, "they hired him back on at this unbelievable salary to run a little dinky company."

Toy and Ware doled out more than $2.8 million in supplemental retirement benefits — ostensibly to retain critical employees — but with no formal criteria and with no board scrutiny of who was receiving the benefits or why.

The board made no effort to determine whether the program was effective even though, as the auditor said, health care professionals, not administrators, are considered the most difficult to retain. Board scrutiny could have ensured that the extra benefits incentivized "other employees in health care positions, instead of being repeatedly provided to the same group of central administrative employees," the audit said.

Auditors discovered that board members who should have been overseeing the expensive program didn't even understand it.

Bluegrass — which runs community mental health centers, programs for the developmentally disabled, Eastern State Hospital and the Oakwood residential facility for adults — has a vital role to play.

Most of the millions that flow through Bluegrass are taxpayer dollars.

Edelen's report offers recommendations that the board should adopt, along with a more aggressive commitment to upholding the public's trust.

The board now faces its most important task: hiring a new leader for the organization. But, first, the board should reform itself.

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