O'Brien County talks mental health role

O’Brien County Veterans Affairs director Roy Wohlert speaks to the board of supervisors Tuesday regarding the potential to shift some of the county’s general assistance duties to his office to alleviate the workload of mental health advocate Abby Wallin. Wohlert agreed to bring in his office’s board members next week to discuss the matter further.

PRIMGHAR—The upcoming retirement of Emmet County’s judicial mental health advocate may mean a bigger caseload for Abby Wallin, who serves in that capacity for O’Brien County.

The O’Brien County Board of Supervisors discussed the development during its meeting Tuesday, March 30, and ways to potentially alleviate a heavy workload for Wallin.

Emmet County is set to join Sioux Rivers Mental Health & Disabilities Services — of which O’Brien County also is a member — on July 1. However, Emmet County’s advocate is retiring May 19, leaving a six-week window before the county joins Sioux Rivers.

Other counties in the Sioux Rivers mental health region are Dickinson, Lyon, Plymouth and Sioux.

The news came up during a recent Sioux Rivers board meeting, at which it also was decided Wallin would be Emmet County’s advocate during the interim period.

Supervisor Sherri Bootsma said the move was decided before she or other O’Brien County supervisors had a chance to talk to Wallin about it to make sure she would not feel stretched too thin with handling another county.

Bootsma also said it is difficult for Wallin to take extended time off since the county cannot be without an advocate for more than four days and there is not anybody that could cover for her.

She suggested the potential to shift Wallin’s general-assistance work — which takes up about 15 percent of her schedule — to the Veterans Affairs Office.

“Abby said there are other VAs in the state that do general relief as well,” Bootsma said.

She brought O’Brien County’s VA director, Roy Wohlert, into the meeting to discuss the idea and to set up a time for the supervisors to meet with the VA board.

Wohlert said he personally would not be in favor of shifting general-assistance casework to the VA office.

“It’s just another responsibility that’s just doesn’t maybe tie in well with where you’re at. If I’m busy in the VA office, and all once we got a run on general assistance, that’s an issue,” Wohlert said.

However, he said the ultimate decision would be up to his board. Wohlert also plans to step down as VA director at the end of the year and hopes to hire a replacement in the summer.

He also said the VA office must be open a minimum of 20 hours a week, which must be dedicated to Veterans Affairs purposes. Wohlert works about 22.5 hours a week, although he pointed out the person who replaces him may welcome additional hours.

“If they’re looking for a strictly part-time, three-day-a-week thing like we run, now you tell them they’re going to have to work another day that may not be attractive at all,” Wohlert said. “On the other hand, it might be ‘Hey, we’re going to do 30 hours instead of 22½.’”

Wohlert agreed to have the county VA office’s board members attend the supervisors’ next regular meeting to discuss the possibility further.

Supervisor Dennis Vanden Hull also asked about the possibility of finding a part-time advocate for the region who would be able to assist Wallin with her casework or fill in for her if Wallin needs to take time off.

“We’re over 100 miles apart, and if you’ve got a two-hour drive, you’re spending four hours on the road. You’ve got to go from one corner to the other,” Vanden Hull said. “When the region’s that big, maybe it’s something that they have to look into.”

Bootsma agreed with that point, adding that Wallin still does some advocate work for Care Connections of Northern Iowa, a mental health region that consists mainly of counties to the east of O’Brien County.