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Upper Mississippi Mental Health Center pulls out of difficult transitions

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Upper Mississippi Mental Health Center pulls out of difficult transitions
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

The Upper Mississippi Mental Health Center opened in a downtown Bemidji storefront 50 years ago. The services moved to a stand-alone building on 15th Street Northwest in 1974 and continued service.

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But two years ago, the center was running at a deficit and sending out distress signals.

That difficult situation has now turned around. The current audit for Upper Mississippi shows the operation is in the black.

"We did manage by the end of the (fiscal) year to climb out of that deficit," said Lenore Barsness, Upper Mississippi executive director.

Kristi Miller, Upper Mississippi operations manager, said she has worked for the center since 1994.

"I've seen the base of this organization fluctuate several times," she said. "Our base is very strong now, and I would say Lenore is the reason for that."

Kelly Bartick, the center's chief financial officer, agreed.

"To see Upper Mississippi growing during those tough times shows a lot of stability," she said.

Barsness came on board two years ago when the center's recent hard times were at their worst. She said the staff and the Upper Mississippi Board of Directors made changes, including reducing staff numbers and cutting wages by 5 percent for lower tier employees and 10 percent for upper tier employees.

The lower tier employees' wages have been reinstated, and the upper tier employees have regained half of the amount they were cut. Barsness said she will propose to the board members a full reinstatement for upper tier employees.

"We have a very loyal staff that are dedicated to the agency and services provided," said Scott Turn, Upper Mississippi board member for seven years. He also serves as treasurer for the agency.

He said the crisis two years ago was caused by a combination of circumstances including transition of directors, software issues, the economy and changes in reimbursements.

"The staff doing more with less basically got us to where we are today," Turn said. "We have a long way to go, but we're on the right track."

Bartick said a positive change is the improvement in accounting software to a more efficient system. Processing paperwork faster, checking clients' insurance coverage promptly and consistent billing are additional financial efficiencies, she said.

Barsness added that the goal is to evolve record keeping into a paperless system.

Barsness said the agency also changed methods of operation to be more client friendly. For example, instead of making potential clients wait weeks for an appointment, Upper Mississippi now offers walk-in clinic hours five days a week and all day Thursdays. The goal, Barsness said, is to offer four full days per week of walk-in service. She said the staff is also exploring the possibility of offering weekend and evening hours to better fit clients' schedules.

Assistant Director Deb Miller said Upper Mississippi has also focused on letting the community know the services offered.

"I think Upper Mississippi has historically been a mystery to the community," she said.

Other improvements include upgrading the building with energy-efficient windows and hiring a regular maintenance person to take care of the facility.

Upper Mississippi serves between 2,500 and 3,000 individuals annually, 75 percent of whom are on Medicaid or some other government insurance.

"We are the primary provider of these services, especially for folks who are struggling financially," Barsness said.

Beltrami County also subsidizes the cost of treatment for some clients. The 10-12 therapists also travel throughout the area to provide day service to Hubbard, Clearwater and Lake of the Woods counties in various capacities, as well as Itasca, Polk and Ottertail counties for sexual offender treatment.

"There's a lot riding on the center and our sustainability," Barsness said.

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