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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Mental Health Layoffs Confirmed, Workers Picket

An woman holds a sign during a picket of Western Montana Mental Health Center in Missoula, Dec. 18, 2017, following state budget cuts to mental health services.
Olga Kreimer

One of Montana’s largest mental health care providers has confirmed that it’s cutting up to 50 case managers and community-based aides. Some of those employees and their supporters picketed Monday morning, protesting the layoff notices.

Saying the layoffs could devastate some of western Montana’s most vulnerable people, about 20 mental health care workers, their supporters and even a few clients picketed the Missoula-based Western Montana Mental Health Center early Monday morning.

Rehab aide, Lisa Leon, predicts the layoffs will lead to more mentally ill people winding up on the streets, in hospitals, or in jail. Since Thursday’s announced layoffs, Leon says one client tried to commit suicide.

"Thankfully he wasn’t successful. I’m sorry, but if any of them are successful, the blood is on Western Montana’s hands and Governor Bullock and the Legislature. They were messing around with people’s lives. I don’t think they understand how many people they’re affecting with these cuts," Leon says.

Western Montana Mental Health said it can’t confirm the exact number of layoffs until Tuesday, but that, "up to 50" employees would not be an unreasonable estimate.

An email from the organization says it has worked hard "to explain what the cuts would mean to community mental health centers, their clients and their staff if the budgets cuts went through."

That statement says,"Unfortunately, the cuts were made anyway and we are now in a place that none of us wanted to be."

Montana’s state health department provides much of the funding for community mental health providers like Western Montana Mental Health Center through Medicaid. The health department has not responded to our interview requests on the topic.

As Montana Public Radio first reported Friday, the layoffs mean about 200 Western Montana Mental Health Center clients could lose their services next month.

Lisa Leon, a union steward for the newly-formed Montana Mental Health Workers Union said that all adult case managers and all but two rehab aides at the Missoula-based organization were told about the layoffs last Thursday.

"These are people’s lives. We’re not a widget factory. If we were manufacturing something that didn’t have feelings ... yeah layoffs, whatever; but we’re dealing with humans," she says.

Statement on Western Montana Mental Health Center layoffs from CEO Jodi Daly, Dec. 18, 2017.
Statement on Western Montana Mental Health Center layoffs from CEO Jodi Daly, Dec. 18, 2017.

Angelena Lewis is a Western Montana Mental Health Center client who picketed in support of the case workers Monday morning.

"They help me find a reason to live, which is one of the big things," Lewis says.

The Health Workers Union claims the Western Montana Mental Health Center is not bargaining in good faith and has filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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