Mental health care workers demonstrate

Whidbey Island mental health workers are hoping the message they helped carry to Olympia April 12 translates into dollars in the state budget now being finalized.

Hundreds of mental health workers statewide participated in the demonstration sponsored by the Service Employees International Union.

Compass Health, which contracts with Island County for mental health services, employs about 40 people on Whidbey Island, including Maureen Masterson. Active in the union, Masterson joined a continent of about 20 islanders to the demonstration.

Legislators were sympathetic to the need for more money. Masterson, a Langley resident, said the Whidbey Island group was supporting a specific line item to fund retention and recruitment of staff.

At present, it’s very difficult to keep mental health staff on the island. College interns may train here, but they choose to work elsewhere. Masterson said a newly certified professional with a master’s degree starts at only $14.10 an hour. “What are you going to pay your college loans with?” she asked.

Compass Health provides mental health services, therapy, case management, chemical dependency treatment, child and family therapy and adult therapy to approximately 450 people on Whidbey Island.

Staff is stretched thin, Masterson said, due to recent cutbacks in state funding. “We can’t see the people as often as we need to,” she said. “They get much sicker before intervention, and the pay scale and benefits are so low it’s hard to recruit people.”

Demonstrators made some apparent progress. Gov. Christine Gregoire included zero funds for recruitment and detention of mental health workers in her budget. Masterson said her group wanted $20 million. At the end of the day April 12, legislators were talking $10 million in the House and $12.5 million in the Senate.

“They’ve definitely seen the need,” Masterson said. “But we don’t know if it will be in the final budget.”

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