The imminent closing of Uta Halee Girls Village in Omaha is causing further concerns among professionals who already were worried about the availability of residential treatment for troubled adolescents in Nebraska.
Uta Halee has been a reliable, high-quality residential treatment facility for adolescent girls with psychiatric or substance-abuse problems, Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said.
"Without them there, there's going to be a void," Kleine said.
Carol Stitt, executive director of the Nebraska Foster Care Review Board, which monitors the care of children who become state wards, said the board already had "expressed concerns about the diminished services we've seen from 2009 to 2011."
With Uta Halee's closing, 20 group living and treatment facilities and two shelters will have shut down since 2009, Stitt said.
"There is without question a need for more mental health services for children and their families," Stitt said.
It's unclear exactly what the effect of Uta Halee's closing will be on the availability of services for children.
The State of Nebraska's Medicaid director, Vivianne Chaumont, said there's plenty of space — 352 beds as of Tuesday — available in Nebraska psychiatric facilities for children who need in-patient residential care. Appropriate placements are available for those who don't need that level of care, she said.
But Kleine and others said it's possible that once Uta Halee closes, youths will have to stay in juvenile detention longer than necessary, be sent out of state to other programs, or be placed in programs that don't offer the level of services they need.
"The concern I have is that the level of services we might have available might not be as good as those at Uta Halee," Kleine said.
Uta Halee Girls Village officials announced Tuesday that they will close their residential treatment center and most of their community-based programs Dec. 15. They blamed declining revenue from the State of Nebraska.
Mary Fraser Meints, president of Uta Halee, called it a heartbreaking decision that was unavoidable but which will leave a large void in youth services.
"Uta Halee is the only girls residential facility in the state of Nebraska," she said.
Board members said Uta Halee had exhausted its reserves as state referrals of children slowed to a trickle.
The center, with a capacity for 60 girls, was down to only 14.
New placements are being sought for those children, and new arrangements for 30 children in outpatient treatment at Uta Halee. The center also will end its Tracker program for juvenile offenders, which serves about 60 children in Iowa and 25 in Nebraska.
Ninety employees will be laid off.
Uta Halee will continue to provide services in its Ponca Pines Academy to private-placement clients — those whose parents pay for their treatment, Meints said in a press conference at Uta Halee's wooded campus in Omaha's Ponca Hills.
Meints, Uta Halee board members Jennifer Hamann and Gary Kaplan and a mother who attended the press conference blamed Gov. Dave Heineman and the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. They said the state is using an overly strict interpretation of federal Medicaid rules to deny coverage for residential treatment.
Ellen Platt said her 12-year-old daughter has been receiving day treatment at Uta Halee for months. The mother called it "a lifeline" for the child and family.
Heineman, questioned Tuesday about Uta Halee at a press conference, said he had just returned to Lincoln and would have to review the Uta Halee situation in greater detail before commenting.
Chaumont said the state has been working with Uta Halee and other providers for 18 months, since the federal government demanded better compliance from Nebraska with Medicaid regulations.
Medicaid would no longer pay for residential treatment in centers with more than 16 beds unless they were certified psychiatric residential treatment facilities. Only children with a mental illness whose symptoms require inpatient treatment — "hospitalization, basically" — qualify for such facilities, Chaumont said.
"There weren't going to be as many kids needing that kind of care, so we weren't going to need as many beds as we needed before," she said.
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