By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Thursday, July 2, Alabama Department of Mental Health Commissioner Jim Perdue (R) was in Sylacauga for the first of an anticipated eighteen town hall meetings across Alabama about the State of mental health services in Alabama. Commissioner Perdue also had a local issue to deal with in deciding on whether or not to allow the Cheaha Mental Health Centers (which serves Talladega, Coosa, Randolph, and Clay Counties) with the AltaPointe Health System. The opposition to the proposed merger had faded away so Perdue announced that he would sign for the two mental health service providers to merge, a move that was supported by most members of the area’s legislative delegation.
Over seventy people; including judges, sheriffs, police chiefs, political party officials, legislators, and healthcare professionals, crowded into the Sylacauga Chamber of Commerce building for the public forum.
Commissioner Perdue said that the large turnout for the first town hall event, “Is really encouraging to see.”
Perdue said that he was a probate judge for 14 years, which is the, “Best job in the world.” Perdue grew up in Luverne, received a degree in accounting from Auburn University and worked with the Federal Reserve bank in Miami and then in Birmingham. He returned to Luverne in Crenshaw County, went into business and built convenience stores for 25 years across the state. I understand what it means to run a business. He was elected Probate Judge of Crenshaw County and did that for fourteen years before running for Secretary of State in 2014. Judge Perdue lost in the Republican Primary to state Representative John Merrill (R-Tuscaloosa). Merrill went on to election as Secretary of State. Gov. Bentley appointed Perdue as Alabama’s Commissioner of Mental Health in July 2015.
Commissioner Perdue said that there is a crisis nationally in mental health. I went to the mental health commissioners meeting in DC and eighteen of them are newer than me. There is a high turnover rate in that job because people burn out so quick. My goal is to bring some consistency to the position in Alabama. Ideally I would like to finish with Gov. Bentley and be asked to stay by the next Governor.
Perdue said that this is an exciting time, because this is a merger of two talents. There were some questions about the merger; but this is the right thing to do. We are going to succeed here today. I signed it (the letter approving the merger) I am counting on it.
AltaPointe Chief Executive Officer J. Tuerk Schlesinger thanked Commissioner Perdue, but then took a more somber tone. Schlesinger said that level funding for healthcare is not level funding because the medical inflationary rate is about 4 percent a year. We are losing 4 percent of our ability to help the people we are responsible.
Schlesinger said that what we looked at is a model in Mobile to provide the most efficient care possible. We have mental health centers all over the state. We have the same struggles that you all have. Right now we have 1350 employees that really don’t make enough money to raise their families. Many of them are working part time jobs to make ends meet. We are using technology to be more efficient. At AltaPointe we invest $5 million a year just in IT to help us do more with less people. The mental health center you have here has been traditionally underfunded. What you have been able to do is miraculous.
Schlesinger said that they need a mental health center in Coosa County (Cheaha serves Coosa County but the residents have to drive to offices in other counties for services.) I am glad to have a partnership with Cindy (Atkinson) and her leadership team.
Schlesinger said that technology is one area where they can improve. How we can leverage that technology to expand the services that are offering in this region. Two years ago AltaPointe merged with Baldwin mental health. We were able to leverage our resources to put more Baldwin employees back on line providing services. Nurses and therapists were able to go back into taking care of patients. Physicians were trying to do administrative functions. There is a great staff here in Sylacauga. We hope to expand your services in a way that you would not be able to. Your 12 board members will join with our board members and we are good with that.
Cheaha CEO Cindy Atkinson told the Alabama Political Reporter that the merger will take effect on August 1. Atkinson said that after studying all of the options she felt that this was the right thing to do for the people served by Cheaha Mental Health Centers.
Talladega Republican Party Chairwoman Gina Grant said that getting the merger approved had been a two year process. Most members of the local legislative delegation had been for the merger but there had been some who voted against in Montgomery.
Commissioner Perdue said that he wanted the state to provide more funding for Alabama mental health services and expand those services to include autism.
Senator Jim McClendon (R-Springville) spoke in favor of his lottery bill, which he intends to bring forward again in either the 2017 legislative session or a special session this year, if Gov. Bentley calls one to deal with the Medicaid crisis.