Her job may be hanging in the balance, but Kathleen Eilers won’t grovel to keep it.
The interim head of Milwaukee County’s Mental Health Complex wants a chance to finish a job she set out to do two decades ago. And she’s making the effort to answer county supervisors’ questions about patient assaults and regulators’ sanctions.
But as far as getting County Board confirmation — a difficult proposition, at least for now — Eilers said her track record is going to have to suffice to make the case she’s the best person for an admittedly daunting task.
“I read something that said I was fighting for my professional life,” Eilers said in an interview. “And I thought, well, not really. This isn’t about me trying to get a bigger job and move on and conquer the world.”
She’s frankly not optimistic about changing supervisors’ minds that she’s not the right person for the job. A board committee voted 6-1 to deny her confirmation. A confirmation vote by the full board Thursday was put off until July.
Now, Eilers and County Executive Chris Abele said they’ll work to try to change some supervisors’ minds.
Having to do that kind of sales job feels foreign to her, Eilers said.
“I enjoyed good support from past county boards,” she said. “I got confirmed twice. I never had anybody write a letter on my behalf. I kind of stood on my experience and my credentials.”
She has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing and more than four decades’ experience as a nurse and administrator.
Abele pointed to letters of support for Eilers, including one from the county’s Community Justice Council, which includes Abele, Mayor Tom Barrett, District Attorney John Chisholm, Chief Judge Jeffrey Kremers and others.
“I am humbled by the amount of support,” Eilers said. But “my sense is that it doesn’t make any difference,” sounding disappointed rather than angry.
Supervisors faulted her mainly for initially declining to answer a question about patient assaults and findings of state and federal inspectors, at an agenda-setting session earlier this month. She provided a lengthy report a couple of days later.
She also got caught in the crossfire between Abele and supervisors over the new Act 14 law limiting supervisors’ authority. To some, her seeming reluctance to keep supervisors in the loop was emblematic of an effort to diminish their role.
“With this department, there seems to be a mentality because of what’s going on in Madison that, ‘We don’t have to answer to you anymore,'” Supervisor Steve F. Taylor told Eilers at a June 12 committee hearing.
Eilers and her boss, county Health and Human Services Director Hector Colon, have pledged to work with the board.
Colon begged supervisors, “Don’t make this a political thing…with the disagreements with the county executive.”
Eilers’ buy-in with Abele’s plan to shrink the Mental Health Complex has also been a key sticking point with some supervisors.
Her advocacy for downsizing, including shutting down two long-term care units by 2016, isn’t likely to waver. Eilers promoted the idea in the 1990s, but no large-scale shift was made before she retired in 2003 from her decade-long first stint heading the complex.
She left the county and took a job as president and CEO of St. John’s retirement community, a job she held until 2011.
Eilers, 68, gave up her $4,056 a month pension to return to the county in April at Abele’s request. The job pays $137,500 a year. County records show she did not get a “backdrop” pension lump sum.
Milwaukee County remains hooked on an institutional care model that’s costly and outmoded, according to the Journal Sentinel’s “Chronic Crisis” series. The place also has been subject to repeated sanctions from regulators over patient abuse and shoddy care.
Supervisors need to be convinced that Eilers can effectively fix patient care shortcomings and not work solely toward emptying the patients from the complex, said County Board Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic.
Eilers acknowledges the problems are deep and complex.
“This is something I’m committed to doing, because this is an opportunity to finish something I started,” Eilers said.
She’s typically blunt about the task she faces.
“It’s not a very attractive job to pick up and move your family here for,” she said. If she can’t get supervisors on her side, the job will be impossible, Eilers said.
“This isn’t about me,” she said. “This is about people with mental illness and the amount of turmoil there has been in this organization in the last 10 years.”
Heavy employee turnover has “left a staff that feels pretty much abandoned,” Eilers said, tearing up.
“And if they feel that way, it’s pretty hard to see that people get good care.”