Debbie Solberg stood in the slush on the shoulder of Russell Street Monday morning, and the sign in her hand cut right to the point: “Honk.” On either side of her stretched a line of fellow picketers—about 15 in all—gathered to protest the recent layoffs of case managers and community-based rehab aides (CBRs) at Western Montana Mental Health Center.

“Two weeks before Christmas,” said Solberg, who, like the others, was informed Dec. 14 that she’d be jobless after Jan. 2. “Yeah, Merry Christmas.”

The layoffs are WMMHC’s way of absorbing a 37-percent cut to Medicaid reimbursements for targeted case management, which the Legislature enacted this year in hopes of balancing the state budget. In a statement Monday afternoon, WMMHC said it was “devastated” at having to cut case managers, and outlined the many ways it attempted to dissuade lawmakers from slashing Medicaid.

“Unfortunately, the cuts were made anyway,” the center’s statement said, “and we are now in a place that none of us wanted to be.”

The case managers and CBRs gathered outside WMMHC’s Missoula offices Monday morning would have preferred not to be there either. Anticipating the likelihood of layoffs, they unionized in September, and had spent the months since attempting to bargain about how terminations would be handled. On Dec. 8, the union filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the center alleging refusal to bargain. Multiple WMMHC staffers have told the Indy that a bargaining meeting is scheduled for Jan. 2, and that a federal mediator will be present.

“The picket’s about the layoffs of case management in the mental health industry, and the lives of the clients that they serve,” Lisa Leon, a CBR and shop steward for the union, said Monday.

The layoffs affect not only WMMHC staff and their families, but as many as 200 clients with varying behavioral health needs. Leon and others are attempting to get as many of those clients as possible signed up for case management services through other organizations, like the Sunburst Community Service Foundation.

“As case managers, we have the ability to pick up the pieces and move on,” said case manager Sara Ball. “Clients need us in order to do that.”

A few of those clients were incensed enough to join the picket. Amid honks from morning commuters, Angelena Lewis held a sign that read, “I need my team.” Lewis said her life has improved considerably since she started with WMMHC nearly 10 years ago, to the point that she now has her own apartment. Her case manager and CBR have given her the kind of structure and support she didn’t have growing up, she added, “lighting the fire underneath me.” To suddenly be faced with losing that assistance has made Lewis “frustrated and angry.”

“Without them, I’d be nowhere,” she said. “I’d be living out on the street.”

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