Published March 12. 2013 4:00AM Updated March 12. 2013 8:26PM
There are serious problems at Sound Community Services, an agency that is supposed to be using about $10 million in state and federal aid annually to provide outpatient psychiatric services in southeastern Connecticut, but seems to be doing a better job of enriching its well-traveled leadership.
So far those leaders and the board of directors charged with providing oversight have arrogantly refused to answer legitimate questions about operational problems at Sound Community Services and what appear to be rampant spending abuses. The state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services has been too slow to demand accountability and fallen short in its responsibility to assure tax dollars are well spent.
If there is a good explanation for the top three officials to have charged $222,508 on the agency's American Express credit cards during an 18-month period as they traveled the country, we would love to hear it. As reported by Day Staff Writer Judy Benson on March 10, President and CEO Gail Lawson, Chief Financial Officer Cindy Kirchhoff and Chief Informatics Officer Christopher "Heath" Bish apparently earned plenty of frequent-flyer points.
Credit card records show the trio purchased 108 air travel tickets, stayed at hotels 56 times, and rented cars at least 19 times as they visited such places as Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Nashville, Erie, Pa., Washington D.C., and the list goes on. There was the $3,269 charged at Omni Orlando Golf Resort at Champions Gate. According to the resort's website, it is the "essence of luxury," a four-diamond resort featuring two "world-class" golf courses.
There were also stays at Hyatts and Hiltons and Crowne Plazas; no leaving the light on at Motel 6 for this group. There was also ample fine dining at steakhouses and seafood restaurants and many retail purchases.
So how did it serve the goal of providing quality mental health care here in southeastern Connecticut to run up the plastic on all these lavish junkets? No one wants to say.
Raising more questions is the operation of a consulting firm within the non-profit Sound Community Services. Ms. Lawson, Ms. Kirchhoff and Mr. Bish do double duty as the primary staff of the consulting company that peddles the CareLogic computer medical records system. Is this salesmanship the justification for all the travel and, if so, why are the expenses charged to Sound Community Services? Shouldn't promotion of a software system be kept separate and distinct from the operations of a non-profit agency that receives public money to help people with psychiatric issues?
So many questions, but so few answers - in fact The Day emailed more than three dozen questions to Ms. Lawson, Ms. Kirchhoff and Mr. Bish and Jane Cable, chairwoman of the board. This is what we got back:
"Audits are to be expected and independent and state auditors have always been satisfied with our procedures for accounting for income and expenses. We will be able to discuss the details of this matter only after the auditor has reviewed the records," Ms. Cable responded in an email.
The audit she refers to is the one the State Auditors of Public Accounts is now working on. But if there are rational explanations for all this travel, this intermingling of accounts, why await the results of an audit to provide those explanations?
These finanical issues would be troubling at any agency. But Sound Community Services is an agency that DMHAS is already monitoring because of complaints about client care, mismanagement, poor treatment of employees and high staff turnover. Last fall more than 400 of the agency's clients received letters telling them to go to primary care doctors or emergency rooms for their psychiatric medications because of a shortage of staff able to prescribe and administer medications.
In expeditious fashion state officials must determine the underlying causes of the problems and apparent fiscal abuses at Sound Community Services, deal with the situation aggressively, and be fully transparent about what they find and what actions they take. Taxpayers and the agency's clients deserve no less.