Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 15, 2013

State stands by Northern Lakes decision

By Anne Stanton
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — State Department of Community Health officials stuck to their decision to blame Northern Lakes Community Mental Health’s leader for placing profoundly disabled clients at risk on public buses.

In a recent letter, the agency wrote that Gregory Paffhouse, Northern Lakes’ chief executive officer, initially accepted responsibility. Some clients were subjected to physical abuse and other potentially harmful situations as they rode buses that carried them from their residences to work sites.

“By his own words, Mr. Paffhouse admitted that, ‘Since NLCMH has paid BATA for transportation services for many years and since other alternatives have not been developed broadly, this must be seen as a systemic problem for which I as the Chief Executive Officer have ultimately responsibility,’” wrote Dianne Baker of the state CMH Office of Recipient Rights in a March 6 letter.

Paffhouse said Northern Lakes’ attorney advised him not to comment, but added that the Northern Lakes board will meet March 21 at 1 p.m. to discuss the issue, and take formal action at a 3:45 p.m. meeting.

“The board obviously takes this very seriously,” he said.

For years, Northern Lakes paid Bay Area Transportation Authority to transport physically and mentally disabled clients to work and training sites. In August 2011, a Northern Lakes client repeatedly beat and choked another client during a 90-minute bus ride. The assault triggered a widespread investigation and revealed a history of problems, involving assaults, attempts at self-harm, and inappropriate sexual behavior.

Paffhouse learned of the incident on Oct. 25, 2011 and the need for immediate supervision; aides weren’t put on buses until five weeks later.

William Rossbach, a stepfather of a severely physically and mentally impaired client, filed a complaint about the delay. The state originally found that Paffhouse, as the CEO, could not be held responsible for hands-on care; it was the staff’s responsibility to protect Northern Lakes clients.

Rossbach filed an appeal that maintained a standard of care does apply to a CEO, based on Northern Lakes’ own board policy.

The state subsequently reversed its decision and asked the board to reprimand Paffhouse.

In a Feb. 28 meeting, the board opted to instead to ask the state for an explanation and to examine Paffhouse’s timeline of efforts to protect riders, such as holding staff meetings to identify vulnerable clients so service plans could be changed to include bus supervision. They also discussed finding alternative transportation and their intent to use Medicaid funding to pay for aides.

Northern Lakes Board President Melissa Fournier did not return a call for comment on Thursday.

Rossbach said he, his wife, Jeanine, and especially his stepson, Michael, are encouraged by the clarity of the state’s response.

“But the previous action of the NLCMH executive director and the unanimous vote of the board — not so much,” he said.

A whisteblower lawsuit related to the BATA bus investigation was filed; a hearing is scheduled for November.