Texas County among those on list of centers closing, Woodward County to remain open
• Special to the Daily Leader
The Oklahoma Health Department is taking steps to close child guidance centers in 17 counties as a cost-saving measure, state officials confirmed Monday.
Child guidance centers will remain open in the following 16 Oklahoma counties after a reorganization by the state Health Department: Oklahoma, Tulsa, Woodward, Garfield, Kay, Payne, Canadian, Cleveland, Pottawatomie, Comanche, Carter, Bryan, Le Flore, Pittsburg, Muskogee and Rogers.
The Oklahoma Health Department is closing its child guidance centers in the following 17 counties: Texas, Kingfisher, Logan, McClain, Garvin, Stephens, Seminole, Okfuskee, Okmulgee, McIntosh, Creek, Pawnee, Washington, Mayes, Wagoner, Cherokee and Adair.
There are child guidance centers in 33 counties, but only 16 will remain open after the reorganization is complete, said Debra Andersen, chief of child guidance services for the Health Department. Eighteen jobs are being eliminated.
Professional staff at child guidance centers work closely with child care centers, Head Start programs and schools so that children with speech, hearing, behavioral and developmental problems can be diagnosed early and treated before the problems grow, Andersen said. More than 7,000 individuals were served through the program last year.
Staff members don’t diagnose autism, but they are often one of the first resources parents and teachers of autistic children turn to for help and they make referrals to places where help can be obtained, one employee told The Oklahoman.
Andersen said the decision to close 17 county child guidance centers is painful because they perform an important service.
“We just had to look at the resources that we have available and make some really tough decisions,” Andersen said. “We really stressed to staff that this was a business decision the agency needed to make.
“We’re incredibly sensitive to families that are being served, and we want to be sure that we allow ample time for transition for any families that are currently receiving services.”
Child guidance staff members include audiologists, child development specialists, psychological clinicians, social workers and speech language pathologists, all of whom hold graduate degrees.
The current staff of 63 child guidance employees will drop to 45 employees through the reorganization, Andersen said. All of the social worker positions are being eliminated, as well as some other jobs.
The agency has set a July 1 target date for completion of the reorganization, which is expected to save between $1 million and $1.5 million a year, she said.
As part of the staff reduction process, guidance center employees have been asked to express their interest in a voluntary buyout that would include a $5,000 payment, the equivalent of 18 months insurance payments, their next longevity check and payment for accumulated leave, Andersen said. The payments would be subject to taxation.
One employee complained to The Oklahoman they are being told they must decide whether they will accept a buyout without knowing the county to which they would be relocated or even the basis for determining which employees would be retained.
Employees are being asked to state whether they will accept a buyout by Wednesday, and May 17 will be the last date to revoke that decision.
Along with closing centers, health department officials have placed a new emphasis on making sure employees can collect payments for the work they perform by directing staff to maintain at least “50 percent of their time in billable services.”
One employee said workers also were told that remaining employees would need to generate at least $2 million in revenue next fiscal year or all positions within the child guidance program would be eliminated.
“This obviously is an impossible feat since the majority of our client load is the uninsured or Medicaid populations,” the employee said.
Andersen acknowledged a $2 million goal was set, but said she was not aware of any statement that the program would be eliminated if the goal wasn’t met.
“We have to make a good effort toward this goal,” she said.
Support for the state’s child guidance program has been on the decline for years, Andersen said.
In the early 1990s, the state had about 180 child guidance employees and centers in a lot more counties, she said.
Many positions have been eliminated through attrition and not filling job openings, she said.
Andersen said the decision on which centers to keep open was based largely on county populations, number of children participating in SoonerCare (Medicaid), and to some extent geography.
She noted the department decided to keep a center in Woodward, even though that county’s population might not be enough to justify it, because there aren’t a lot of other services nearby.