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Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority to lose a good leader

Apr 17, 2017

I have to admit I was surprised four years ago when Tom Watkins was appointed head of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. When I first knew him, Watkins was state superintendent of schools. That is, until Governor Jennifer Granholm pressed to have him fired for questioning some of her policies.

After that, he did some education consulting, but became best known as an enthusiastic advocate of closer ties between Michigan and China. But then, he got the Mental Health Authority job. And it turned out to be an inspired choice. What I hadn’t known was that Watkins has been concerned with mental health issues his entire life. Two of his brothers committed suicide.

And he set about enthusiastically transforming and streamlining services. His first task was to turn a county agency into an independent authority. That complete, his team managed to retire millions in debt and generate millions more in new revenue.

They increased wages for care providers, reduced administrative costs and standardized rates providers were paid. Wayne County has long been notorious for cronyism. Watkins set about terminating, modifying and rationalizing some contracts left over from the bad old days.

But he couldn’t quite escape the Wayne County culture. A week ago, a volunteer who knows a lot about mental health and the authority contacted me.

He told me that the Detroit Wayne County Mental Health Authority Board had just voted to forgive a $1.4 million debt owed it by something called the Integrated Care Alliance, or ICA.

That’s a group that was taken over recently by a for-profit company, Molina Health Systems. The debt surfaced after an audit showed ICA had tacked on unapproved add-on “administrative fees” to a contract it had. Watkins was outraged. He wanted to insist ICA refund those fees. But he was overruled by the board by a vote of six to five, The board, which hadn’t gotten involved when Watkins terminated earlier contracts, had earlier voted to take away his authority to do so in the future. My source told me that some of the board members have strong ties to Integrated Care Alliance, something I could not confirm.

But I can tell you that after the board made that decision, Watkins resigned. Actually, he refused to accept an extension to his current contract, which expires Aug. 31.

In its zeal to help Molina, the board may have caused itself other problems. Two other provider networks then demanded they be allowed to collect add-on administrative fees too, since ICA had gotten away with it. The board has not yet acted on that request.

If they do get that money, that means another $10 million or so that won’t be available for those with mental health issues. When I talked to Tom Watkins he insisted he wasn’t bitter. “One door closes; another opens,” he said, sounding a little like a Michigan Confucius.

“I feel great about all our team has accomplished, and there is a time and season for everything.” He promised to work to ensure a smooth transition, and added. “I hope to find a new role where I can continue to add value and make a difference.”

Well, Tom Watkins may not be bitter. But maybe the rest of us should be.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.