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Loss of funding may close Breakthrough Club

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013, at 6:48 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013, at 2:34 p.m.

Jody King says if Breakthrough Club closes, she may not be able to get out anymore.

Before she started coming to the club 12 years ago, she often found it difficult – and sometimes impossible – to leave her house, both she and her husband said.

“That’s the only thing that gets me out, to know I’m important to someone other than my husband,” said King, 62, a frequent participant in activities at the 30-year-old club for people with mental illnesses.

“This is my family,” King said. “I will lose my family. I will lose a big part of my support … I’ll be lost without Breakthrough, totally lost.”

Since losing access to Medicaid dollars in 2010, the Breakthrough Club has received a $275,000 annual grant from Sedgwick County. Last week, Sedgwick County Comcare – the county mental-health organization – informed the club it’s canceling that funding for 2014.

“We’ll have to close it down at the end of the year if the funding isn’t restored,” said Barbara Andres, longtime executive director of Breakthrough Club. Andres also holds the same position with Breakthrough’s parent organization, Episcopal Social Services.

“We have 182 people we’re serving in a significant way,” she said. “Those folks are going to have to find services somewhere else.”

Comcare didn’t decide to take away the funding lightly, said Sedgwick County Manager William Buchanan.

He said the Breakthrough Club lost its Medicaid support after billing for services that weren’t eligible for reimbursement.

For the past three years, the county has been Breakthrough’s primary source of funds, providing a grant to keep the club operating while trying to help it regain its financial footing and Medicaid eligibility, he said.

“We haven’t been able to get them approved,” he said.

And now, “our resources are limited and we need to make strategic choices” to fund programs that will serve more people, Buchanan said.

He said part of the money that had been going to Breakthrough will go to a community mental-health crisis center. Some will go to primary-care intervention, a program to connect people with mental illness – who also often suffer from physical ailments – with a primary-care medical home, he said.

Andres disputed the reason the Breakthrough Club lost Medicaid support.

“The reason we lost eligibility is they (Comcare) have complete control over who has eligibility,” said Andres, who helped found the group. “It’s just struggled in the last three years because of funding, not because of policy.”

‘We’re unique’

Breakthrough Club traces its roots to 1983, when it started as a mental-health program within Episcopal Social Services.

It spun off into a separate nonprofit organization in 1987, said ESS spokeswoman Jennifer Wise. The club and ESS recombined in 2011 and now share a building at 1010 N. Main St.

Breakthrough Club isn’t planning to go away quietly. Staff, board members and clients are planning to appeal directly to the County Commission to try to get the funding restored.

Commissioner Karl Peterjohn said he was informed by staff that the funding would be cut, but as of Friday, he hadn’t been contacted directly by advocates wanting it restored.

“They’ve struggled on several different levels and been through several reorganizations,” he said. As for Comcare changes, he said “we’re trying to get the best bang for our buck.”

Alfred James, an 84-year-old geologist and oilman who serves on Breakthrough Club’s advisory board and has been a client, said he thinks the county will ultimately end up losing money if it cuts the club’s funding.

Without support from the club, some clients will retreat to their homes and Comcare will have to deal with the mental problems caused by their isolation. Others could gravitate to the street and end up in trouble with the law, increasing the already-too-high population of mentally ill people in the county jail, James said.

Breakthrough Club provides a range of services including meals, job assistance, counseling, education, social interaction, transportation, computer training and English lessons. The club has a well-equipped workout room, and nursing students come in once a week to provide medical tests for diabetes, cholesterol, blood pressure and other health issues.

“It’s the only place like it,” said Jillene Thomas, 38, who described the approach as “all-encompassing.”

“We’re unique,” she said. “You can’t get these services anywhere else.”

The club even stays open and serves traditional meals on holidays because that can be a particularly isolating, stressful and depressing time for people who have mental illness and nowhere to go, Wise said.

The clients make it a point to help each other and help maintain the club. In fact, it’s difficult to tell the paid staff from the members.

Brian Jones, 41, ate his lunch Friday and then swept the lunchroom. He said he has been coming to the club since he was a teenager.

Over the years he said he has performed a variety of duties for the club; some paid, some volunteer.

“It helped me get off of drugs, and I’m happy for that,” he said. “My life is a whole lot better.”

The club also helped him control anger issues, he said.

“I started talking to people, and they started helping me out and it really did work,” he said. “I found out that I’m not really a mean person.”

He said he has a two-year degree in cooking but the state won’t allow him to work in a commercial kitchen anymore because he once had an epileptic seizure and fell on a hot grill.

The club closing has been on his mind a lot.

“I would have to go another way,” he said. “But I have all these friends and would like to stay with my friends. I love my friends.”

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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