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State of Mind: Experts fear patient care could suffer under low, direct-care worker wages

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State of Mind: Experts fear patient care could suffer under low, direct-care worker wages. (WWMT/Mike Krafcik)

Mental health experts said low pay drives the critical shortage of direct-care workers. In the Kalamazoo area, experts fear that if the trend continues, patient care will suffer.

Across Kalamazoo County, hundreds of people who live with mental illnesses or intellectual and developmental disabilities rely on direct-care workers every day.

"When you look at the care we provide, it’s similar to what we give seniors. Our staff literally makes life and death decisions," said Scott Schrum, the chief executive officer of Residential Opportunities Inc., a nonprofit agency that hires and manages direct care workers.

According to a workforce survey report conducted by MARO, an organization that promotes access for those with disabilities, and Michigan Assisted Living Association, these workers in Michigan have an average starting wage of $10.70 an hour.

"If someone doesn’t show up for a shift, that could create a neglectful situation. The issues we have tend to be people not showing up to work. Occasionally we have a medication error, someone forgot to give medication," Schrum said.

Patient rights complaints are filed with Kalamazoo Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, the agency contracts direct-care employees and other workers employed at specialized residential care facilities and hospitals.

According to its 2018 records, Kalamazoo Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services received 765 recipient rights complaints — a 19% increase from 2017.

Jeff Patton, the chief executive officer of Kalamazoo Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, said the number of substantiated complaints remains steady.

"We are seeing an increase in overall complaints. It means people might be more aware they can file complaints with the system," Patton said.

Patton said he hasn't a seen an increase in complaints filed against direct-care workers, but expressed concern that, that could change if direct-care worker wages remain stagnant.

"If an individual can make more money at Walmart, McDonald's or Costco — it’s a market problem. If a provider is unable to recruit enough staff and adequate staff, it is going to impact the delivery of services," Patton said.

Patton and other mental health experts have called for direct-care workers to earn a starting wage of at least $2 per hour above the state minimum wage of $9.45.

Editor’s note: The Newschannel 3 I-Team is passionate about making a positive difference and we hope you can help. Tell us about the challenges you or a loved one have encountered when trying to get mental health help. Please email tips and story ideas to iteam@wwmt.com. Then, join us Mondays and Thursdays at 11 p.m., and regularly online at WWMT.com, as the I-Team works toward solutions to the challenges our community faces.