Where’s the money? A local mental health provider takes $1.2 million from the state, doesn’t pay its employees | North Carolina | Indy Week
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Where’s the money? A local mental health provider takes $1.2 million from the state, doesn’t pay its employees 

In the video clip, Will Smith sprawls on the floor of a bathroom stall, clutching his son, on a bed of toilet paper. Tears well in his eyes.

"I remember sleeping in abandoned buildings," a motivational speaker barks. "I remember eating out of garbage cans."

The clip, a portion of the 2006 film Pursuit of Happyness, segues to NBA star Kevin Garnett, sweat dripping from his chin, as he practices his shooting motion. The strings swell. "You do what you've been called to do, what you were born to do. Nobody can do what you do. Are you hearing what I'm saying? You're powerful."

Bilisa Perkins, a former case manager at Family Legacy Mental Health Services in Raleigh, didn't feel inspired as she watched in late August. That's probably because she and other employees were sent a link to YouTube when they inquired about their missing paychecks.

By most accounts, payroll at Family Legacy—which primarily serves poor Medicaid recipients in Durham and Wake counties—has been tumultuous since January. That's when checks began arriving late. In March, they stopping coming at all for case managers, the day-to-day workers who connect clients with services. By May, therapists were missing paychecks, too. Some months, paychecks didn't come at all. Other months, they would bounce, or workers would have to beg for partial cash payments.

Family Legacy's CEO, a Raleigh businesswoman named Lisa Stacey, is offering few answers. She did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story, and employees say that, for months, Stacey has been elusive when they asked about payroll.

"She told me to just have faith in Family Legacy," Perkins says. "But Duke Energy doesn't have faith. They'll cut my lights out."

Today, the clinic remains open. But, aside from the occasional text or email, employees say Stacey's been absent for nearly three weeks, even as her foundering Raleigh and Durham clinics saw more than half of their employees quit.

Several workers who spoke to the INDY reported thousands in missing wages and bounced checks. All of this, if true, is a violation of state and federal labor laws, which require employees to be paid at least monthly.

Family Legacy's staff has dwindled to just five today, down from 12 a few months ago, with a pair of doctors expected to handle dozens of clients. Workers say the exodus has severely impacted the level of care this agency provides to a particularly vulnerable population.

"Therapists stopped going out because they couldn't afford gas," Perkins says.

A representative for the U.S. Department of Labor says the agency is investigating, but at present, Family Legacy remains an authorized public mental health care provider in North Carolina.

This is the seamy underbelly of North Carolina mental health care. According to advocates, facilities such as Family Legacy expose a fundamental lack of state control in North Carolina's system of public mental health care, such as it is, underfunded and creaking.

Alliance Behavioral Healthcare, the managed care organization, or MCO, assigned to manage public mental health services in Durham, Wake, Cumberland and Johnston counties, says it can do nothing for these workers.

"We don't have control over the way a provider interacts with their employees," says Alliance spokesman Doug Fuller. "You can assume how we would feel about it, though."

For the last 15 years, the state has been phasing in a system that hinges upon MCOs like Alliance, which are charged with overseeing and disbursing Medicaid reimbursements to providers. Last week, Republican leadership in the General Assembly approved legislation that will, over the next four years, cede control of Medicaid to private, for-profit companies.

They say it will stabilize the sometimes-unpredictable cost of Medicaid, but most providers believe it will only loosen state control. In fact, they argue, it seems lawmakers' intent is to absolve themselves of responsibility for the system.

Patients will inevitably suffer, they argue. Yet at Family Legacy, patients are already suffering, workers say.

"The person who needs services is once again going to be a victim of the way our state chooses to provide these services," says Vicki Smith, executive director of Disability Rights N.C. "And I want you to use the word 'victims,' because that's what they are."

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