Editor’s note: Nearly four months after the official launch date of the AltaPointe Health Systems and Cheaha Regional Mental Health Center merger, AltaNews writers interviewed staff members in both regions about the changes. The following article comprises comments from several employees. Their attitudes and opinions were overwhelmingly positive despite the many challenges related to the merger.
Cheaha-AltaPointe meet challenges
The AltaPointe Health Systems and Cheaha Regional Mental Health Center merger presented different challenges for people in both organizations.
At the former CRMHC, employees were faced with learning to use new computer software and hardware, new tactics and techniques needed to do their jobs, and building new relationships with their south Alabama partners. Once their new colleagues got over some understandable jitters, as one of our trainers said, they were ready to learn as fast as the trainers could teach.
For employees from the Mobile Bay region who provided training during the merger transition, traveling to and from the Sylacauga region was tough, at least in the beginning. Many of them said with each subsequent visit, as they became more familiar with their new coworkers and the community, traveling became easier.
Prospect of expanding services motivates Cheaha
It was the potential ability to offer a broader level of services that initially attracted the CRMHC’s board of directors to AltaPointe, according to Cindy Atkinson, the former CRMHC executive director and now AltaPointe’s associate executive director of community mental health for the Sylacauga region. Having worked at CRMHC for 36 years, she recognized that the changes in healthcare were placing ever-increasing demands on the mental health center as it served patients in Clay, Coosa, Randolph and Talladega counties.
“Every year, we found ourselves trying to decide what services would have to be cut,” Atkinson said. “We were fortunate that our board was very engaged in governance, and when board members gave us the go-ahead to look for a partner, I knew we needed to talk to AltaPointe.”
Atkinson, who led the movement toward a merger, said a major key to the successful merger was closely working with state and local political leaders, the Alabama Department of Mental Health as well as legislators, mayors, city council members, county commissioners and chambers of commerce leaders.
“Our legislative delegation became our champions,” she recalled. “They knew that there was not going to be any additional money in the state budget for mental health services.”
Another crucial step toward creating a smooth transition, Atkinson said, was easing CRMHC staff members’ concerns about shifting from being a CRMHC employee to working for AltaPointe. During regular updates about the coming changes, she said she made sure the CRMHC employees knew why the merger was necessary and responded to their questions.
“They were worried about their jobs, their pay and their benefits,” Atkinson said. “But we went into the merger with our employees knowing ahead of time that they would have their jobs, their benefits and the same rate of pay. They felt good about that.”
Chief executives, HR welcome new ‘family’ members
During their first visit after the merger went into effect Aug. 1, Tuerk Schlesinger, AltaPointe CEO, and Julie Bellcase, AltaPointe Chief of Staff, traveled north to meet as many Sylacauga region employees as possible.
“They set a gracious and inclusive tone for the cultural changes, encouraged questions and expressed their pleasure that we were now part of the AltaPointe family,” Atkinson said. “They were totally transparent about the merger: the changes that could be expected and the ones yet to be discovered.”
Soon after, AltaPointe’s human resources’ team was one of the first groups from Mobile to meet the newest 125 Sylacauga region coworkers. HR introduced them to AltaPointe, provided information about their jobs, rates of pay, time and attendance, and scheduling among many other pertinent details. The HR staff members answered their questions and had a lot of “face time” with the new employees.
“We were the first team on the ground to talk about who AltaPointe is as an employer,” Alicia Donoghue director of human resources, said. “Really, we were the ‘welcome wagon’ for the AltaPointe Sylacauga Region’s staff members.”
The HR team spent four days in July prior to the launch of the merger having onboarding meetings with the Sylacauga staff members. Donoghue said the meetings went well “simply because Cindy Atkinson had given them time leading up to the merger so they would know what to expect.”
AltaPointe leadership realized that their new coworkers might fear the merger if they did not know what to expect. According to many studies, most people fear the unknown, which causes stress; and so every effort was made to give AltaPointe’s new east central Alabama employees as much information as possible.
“Anytime you have a big change, it’s going to be stressful,” said Ann Cunningham, division coordinator for intellectual disabilities. “But, when the AltaPointe people came up from Mobile to train us, they encouraged us. Each training session was very thorough, lessening the stress level.”
Cunningham also observed that though the merger’s benefits are multifaceted, the Sylacauga region staff members have enjoyed one enormous advantage. “They now can be much more efficient with patient admissions and discharges because of the administrative resources AltaPointe brought to the table.”
Staff can now focus on main job responsibilities
Kathleen Robinson, human resources manager in the Sylacauga region, is one of those people who felt good about the changes that came with the resources AltaPointe brought to the table. Describing the merger as a “godsend,” Robinson had been working as a one-person department.
“Before the merger, I would spend my days ricocheting from job interviews to benefits management, workers comp issues, recruiting and record-keeping,” Robinson said. “Now, thanks to the technology employed by AltaPointe HR, people apply for jobs online, employees use computers to manage many of their benefits and recruiting new employees is easier.”
She agreed with Cunningham that the trainers were patient, which made the training easier for her and her colleagues. “If I asked a question 50 times, they answered it 50 times,” she said, laughing. More seriously, she added, “Everybody had to learn something new, and I mean everybody.”
Michele Ryan, practice manager, agreed that the merger relieved the burden on her and others of having to wear multiple hats.
“Before the merger, I never knew from day to day what I might be dealing with,” she said. “Now I can focus on being the practice manager. It seemed like every year brought another cut that we had to make and more tasks we had to absorb. We were never expanding. Now we have the chance to grow.”
Ryan praised the CarePointe department, which handles AltaPointe’s access to care. The access procedures and systems eliminated manual scheduling in the Sylacauga Region, and staff members can now spend more time treating patients. She acknowledged that the new resources are what will make it possible to expand outpatient services, including school-based therapy, in the region.
Electronic systems improve efficiency
Brandy Richardson, former day treatment coordinator and now the associate clinical director for the Sylacauga region, said she likes the “changes, possibilities and challenges” afforded by the merger.
“There have been a lot of positives,” she said. “With electronic records, we’re much more efficient in our ability to do admissions and discharges. And, I know we will be able to offer more services to the community.”
In-home therapist Michael Gooden said the merger has dramatically affected the way he can relate to clients and their families. “There are always medical staff members on duty,” he said. “We haven’t had that in the past. It used to be that it might have been a week before I could get someone an appointment; now I can call and get them something quickly.”
Going from “paper to non-paper” has been “a tremendous tool,” he added. “You sit down, pull up a person’s file, and there everything is, right in front of you.”
In addition, he now has more time to visit with patients in their homes where he can see firsthand the conditions with which they may be contending. “A lot of times, you take it for granted that people have running water, that they have food, that they have lights,” Gooden said. “And then you see that
He said patients and residents in the Sylacauga region have asked him questions about the merger, and he’s been happy to explain its benefits.
“We’re still here, and we’re bigger and better,” Gooden said. “That’s what I tell everybody.”
Staff member welcomes changes
Kenya Nix calls herself “a warrior who loves a challenge,” including the challenges posed by the merger. A child and adolescent in-home therapist, she joined the Cheaha center 10 years ago because she has “always been the type of person who wants to help people.”
She said their new colleagues from Mobile “came with a warm spirit” to help CRMHC employees learn the new technology. Nix said the changes have given her more time to spend with her patients. “That’s what I like best about my job: interacting with the kids and their families.”
Their new colleagues from Mobile not only showed up with a “warm spirit,” they brought equipment and expertise intended to help the CRMHC folks embrace their new or expanded roles. At the top of the equipment list were all-things related to computer technology and communication.
In all, AltaPointe’s chief information officer Steve Dolan said he and his 21-member staff delivered, installed and implemented about 270 devices including desktop and laptop computers, servers, monitors, phones, printers and switches.
The IT team began preparing well before the merger was announced, devoting approximately 1,100 man hours to the transition.
“I knew about a year out that AltaPointe was talking to Cheaha about a merger,” Dolan recalled. “We tried to clear as much off of our plates as we could, so that we would have the time to devote to it. We started with a pre-merger analysis, assessing each of Cheaha’s facilities and their manpower and needs.”
He said the AltaPointe north region, as it is called internally, went “live” with electronic medical records on day one of the merger along with payroll and employee data.
“Other things took a little longer,” Dolan said, “but it all happened pretty quickly. We had people stationed in every facility up there on that first day, walking the halls and making ourselves available to answer questions or put them in touch with people who could help them. Things started to normalize and settle down pretty quickly.”
He applauded Atkinson’s staff for their can-do outlook and attitudes of trust.
“Everybody I encountered at Cheaha was pleasant and enthusiastic,” he said. “Enough can’t be said about how the administration prepared the employees with definite transparency all along the way.”
Systems manager Eric Talton was among Dolan’s team members who spent many hours in the Sylacauga region, training employees to use the newly installed phone system, telehealth equipment and software for electronic records and human resources.
Providing the Sylacauga region with connectivity that enabled the two regions to talk was top priority followed quickly by getting all employees on AltaPointe’s email.
“They were very receptive to the training which made the transition easier.” Talton recalled. “Having been involved in mergers during my career, it was easy to understand how the change could be viewed. We answered questions and attempted to make the transition as easy as possible.”
Review shows benefits greater than expected
Reporting on the merger transition to the AltaPointe Board of Directors this past fall that, Schlesinger said the lessons learned from the 2014 Baldwin County merger helped AltaPointe succeed in the Sylacauga Region. “I feel good about how blended the two organizations’ staff members are,” he said. “We are one large team now.”
Atkinson said in her report that the merger had done so much more for the former Cheaha Regional Mental Health Center than she ever expected. “It is clear the merger was the right decision. The benefits are far greater than I ever realized they would be.”
Overall, Bellcase said in an interview that the merger has been a “good fit” for both organizations, allowing AltaPointe to serve more Alabamians and the Cheaha staff members “to become what they wanted to be.”
“They came to the merger energized and ready to be supportive,” Bellcase said. “They were behind the merger; they were the ones who initiated it.”
In both locations, she said, employees are committed to their communities.
“There are so many good people working at AltaPointe who really care about the folks we serve,” Bellcase said. “We’re making a difference in people’s lives.”
History of Cheaha Regional Mental Health Center
Filed Certificate of Formation as Cheaha Regional Mental Health Center
CRMHC Board appointed Marilyn Lauber as first CRMHC Executive Director
Program Expansion: Avondale Mills donated 7.5 acres for construction of the community mental health center in Sylacauga. Grants were approved for construction and staffing of a community mental health center in Sylacauga.
Full-time outpatient services begin in Clay County at the White building in Lineville on Highway 9.
Avondale Mills donates the Cotton Bowl structure alcoholism treatment center. This was the first location of Caradale Lodge.
CRMHC Activity Center opens in Talladega to serve individuals with intellectual disabilities.
CRMHC appoints Dr. Larry Morris as executive director succeeding Marilyn Lauber.
A new Caradale Lodge and Annex for residential and outpatient substance abuse treatment replaces the Cotton Bowl structure.
Hillwood Group Home, a 15-bed HUD project, began operation as a therapeutic group home in Sylacauga.
The Talladega Outpatient Clinic and Burton Developmental Center are constructed in Talladega on Bemiston Avenue.
The Randolph County Clinic relocates to a renovated historical home on Main Avenue in Roanoke.
Hickory Village, an Alabama Housing Finance Authority Tax Credit Project, began operation of 20 apartments and a clubhouse.
Hooten Apartments, consisting of five, two-bedroom apartments, was constructed next to the Clay County office.
CRMHC Board appoints Cindy Atkinson as executive director succeeding Larry Morris.
Green Retrofit awards CRMHC a $269,153 grant to renovate Hillwood Group Home.
Haynes-Moncus Group Home began operation serving individuals with intellectual disabilities. Mr. and Mrs. Tom McVey donated the land on which the home sits in Clay County.
Rural Utilities Services distributed through the US Department of Agriculture awards CRMHC a $157,560 grant for telepsychiatry services in Clay and Randolph counties.
CRMHC began offering Mental Health First Aid courses to the community.
CRMHC secures USAC funding to substantially improve and lower its ongoing telecommunication costs.
Cheaha Regional Mental Health Center merges with AltaPointe Health Systems, Aug. 1.