NASHVILLE -- The state's last-minute offer to reinstate a $774,000 grant for a program at Chattanooga's TEAM Centers has come too late to prevent the service's planned Aug. 12 closure, the clinic's director says.
Too many employees already have accepted jobs elsewhere, interim Executive Director Peter Charman said Friday evening. But he said he and the board will work to reassemble a new staff to run the program that provides diagnostic and other services for developmentally and intellectually disabled children and adults.
"We will begin a recruiting effort immediately to look for new clinical staff," Charman said, reading from a statement prepared by the board of directors. "Also, I'm talking to other agencies and clinical practices in the community to look for ways to deliver these important services to our patients."
Tennessee's Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities on July 13 decided against continuing the grant following a "top to bottom review" of spending and programs. Gov. Bill Haslam has ordered all agencies to conduct such reviews to streamline services and save money.
The grant funded what one parent has called a "once-in-a-lifetime" clinical program for children and adults with autism, cerebral palsy, other developmental delays and intellectual disabilities.
Disabled residents from across the state were referred to TEAM for speech, occupational and physical therapy, along with medical evaluations and treatment from experts.
But the newly created Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Department's chief, Commissioner Jim Henry, had questioned the grant. He insisted his department was not supposed to be in the business of providing services for most children, although some advocates disagree.
The state originally had offered a final $193,000 grant to TEAM to keep the program running for three months so other sources of operational funds could be found or developed.
But once the department was told by TEAM officials that they would spend the grant on severance packages and other "shutdown costs," the state withdrew the grant offer.
Bowing to an outcry from parents of those being served and concerns voiced by local state legislators, Henry told the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Thursday he would "probably" reinstate the grant for a year to give the TEAM Centers an opportunity to find alternative funding.
He later called Charman and made the offer official. Efforts to contact department officials for a reaction Friday evening were unsuccessful.
Signal Mountain Mayor Bill Lusk, whose 14-year-old son Kyle has autism and has benefited from TEAM Centers services, said the board's announcement "comes as a shock."
He said he spoke just last week with Charman about parents' efforts and received no discouragement.
"That's just barely over a week ago," Lusk said, noting since then "a lot of us [parents] have put in considerable effort to save TEAM's clinical effort."
Lusk was encouraged by the TEAM Centers' stated intent to try to rebuild its clinical staff. He said he is "aware of very capable clinicians who would be very interested" in the positions.
"I think the people are available -- if the TEAM board is willing to expend the effort to recruit them," Lusk said.
Senate Speaker Pro Tem Bo Watson, R-Hixson, who is chairman of the Government Operations Committee, had at parents' request pressed state officials to re-examine their decision to pull the grant.
He had informed Henry that when his committee, which reviews operations of state agencies and departments to see if they should be renewed, decides not to extend an entity, it gives it a year to wind down affairs. The commissioner appears to have gone along with the argument.
Watson said Charman had "told me that one of their challenges was going to be reforming their staff. That's understandable. Hopefully, they can figure out a way to address that. That's up to their board and their organization."
In its statement, the board said "a primary concern" members had when they learned of Henry's offer was "whether we could provide the specialized clinical staffing necessary to deliver services as required by the [diagnosis and evaluation] grant."
The board three weeks ago issued separation agreements to the clinicians. After talking to them on Friday, the statement said, officials learned "nearly all of our clinical staff have taken other positions in the community."
Because of the situation, the statement said, the "TEAM board has decided that TEAM cannot take state funds in good faith until the staffing situation is resolved. We will make every effort to look for new clinical staff that can appropriately deliver clinical services to our patients."
The state and TEAM Centers disagree over how many developmentally and intellectually challenged Southeast Tennesseans are being served by TEAM's program. The figures range from 2,700 to 600. Charman said it is at least 1,300 to 1,400.
TEAM Centers operates several other services under contract with the state.