SEARHC To Close Bill Brady Healing Center As Sequester Hits

The Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, or SEARHC, is closing down its residential drug and alcohol treatment program. The closure was announced Tuesday and comes after massive reductions in federal funding, also known as sequestration.

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The Bill Brady Healing Center has existed in its current form since 1996. About 50 patients graduate from the 40-day program every year.

“I know that April 30 is our last day,” said Dave Johnson, who has been a residential manager at the Healing Center for about four-and-a-half years.

When Johnson clocked out at 2 o’clock Monday afternoon, he was told to return at 4 for a mandatory meeting. That’s when SEARHC officials broke the news that the center would close in about a month’s time.

“When it was first told to us, I was bitter, and I was angry,” he said. “Last night I couldn’t sleep. And today, I woke up and I feel a lot better. There’s two ways to look at it. You can look at it as a total negative, but there’s another way to look at it as, another door is going to open.”

Johnson is one of about 22 people who work at the Healing Center. In a statement released Wednesday, SEARHC says some of the employees will be reassigned. Others will be furloughed — a temporary, unpaid leave, basically — and others will be let go completely.

The closure will save SEARHC about $1.5 million every year. The money will chip away at a funding cut of more than $3.5 million, imposed by sequestration — the name given to cuts that automatically kicked in on March 1, when Congress failed to agree on a federal budget.

SEARHC CEO Charles Clement says the organization has dealt with short-term funding problems before. But he calls sequestration “the new normal.”

“For all intents and purposes, it looks like the sequestration is going to be a permanent reality,” Clement said.

He says that means the organization can’t tighten the belt for six months and ride out the storm. At Bill Brady, SEARHC is still figuring out who will lose their job outright, and who will be moved to other parts of SEARHC.

Clement says the dozen or so patients currently in the program will be seen through to completion in mid-April, and then staff will have two weeks to wrap up loose ends and close the doors.

This latest round of budget cuts comes after SEARHC spent a year digging out from a $4 million deficit. Clement says the organization just got back to breaking even when sequestration hit.

And with the new $3.5 million hit, conversations continue among upper management on how to continue digging out of the hole.

“They’re a combination between these sort of financial conversations and these subjective value conversations,” he said. “We’re sort of working it through the best we can, considering that for all intents and purposes, we’re being held over a barrel that we have to make these decisions on a very short time frame.”

Back to Dave Johnson, the residential manager at Bill Brady Healing Center.

“My heart is telling me to go back to Angoon,” Johnson said.

The 32-year-old grew up in the Admiralty Island community. For nearly five years, he says he’s been part of a team that helps complete strangers heal. And as he tries to heal from the sudden end to all of that, he says it’s a good reason to be close to his family.

“I wouldn’t say I’m at peace. You’re seeing the cover. There’s a lot … I’m really in shock, mainly,” he said. “This was the best job I’ve ever had. I can honestly say that.”

Ed Ronco is a reporter at KCAW in Sitka.

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