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Upper Mississippi Mental Health Center: Agency regains solid ground after difficult years

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local Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Pioneer
(218) 333-9819 customer support
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

The Upper Mississippi Mental Health Center was facing financial and staff difficulties earlier this year.

"The board was really uncertain whether the agency could be salvaged," Executive Director Lenore Barsness said Wednesday.

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But a reorganization under Barsness and Genny Lowry, financial director, has brought the center back to a more healthy outlook.

"We're still working on it - we're catching up on some old bills," said Lowry. "We have money in the bank."

As a symbol of the more favorable situation and to raise the visibility of the center, UMMHC held a community open house Wednesday afternoon

Kristi Miller, administrative services, said the center was started in 1959 by Dr. Howard Reid and became a private nonprofit in 1960. The center provides mental health services, both individually and in group therapy; sex offender treatment, mostly funded by the Department of Corrections; Children's Therapeutic Services and Support, both in-home and at schools; and medication management services.

Miller said the center serves about 3,000 individuals per year.

She said many clients are court-referred to the center, but the center doesn't always receive reimbursement if the client can't pay. Instituting a sliding fee scale according to clients' incomes and working out reimbursement schedules helps ease the financial problems, Barsness said.

As a community-based private nonprofit mental health center, Barsness said UMMHC serves a large proportion of underinsured, uninsured and public health services clients. Often, reimbursements do not cover the costs of services.

Barsness said the reorganization resulted in reducing staff, although the number of clients served has increased. Staff also took on extra duties, such as janitorial and maintenance, and now are involved in a work training collaboration with the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe for cleaning services.

Barsness said another change is to raise awareness of the UMMHC's role in the community and the necessity of maintaining services.

"It's a community aspiration to see fewer people hospitalized so that people can remain functional in their homes and their jobs," she said.

UMMHC employs 55 full- and part-time staff members and therapists in the Bemidji and Park Rapids centers.

UMMHC also hired Deb Miller to be a public relations liaison with the community.

"It's been so important this year to work on community relations," Barsness said.

Deb Miller agreed, adding, "We've been invisible in our community for a long time. One of the things we try to do is be visible and credible."

Barsness said part of that credibility relates to lessening the stigma of mental health issues and "normalizing the conversation about mental health."

Barsness said she was hired in October 2008 specifically as an effort to turn the center around.

mmiron@bemidjipioneer.com

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Pioneer staff reports
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