Offices for Willamette Valley Community Health, where Behavioral Care Network holds its meetings. Both entities oversee healthcare for low-income residents in Marion and Polk counties. (Jessica Floum/The Lund Report)

A political game of chicken has hit a regional healthcare bureaucracy that's leaving the transgender community feeling it could be the loser.

The Behavioral Care Network has been stuck in limbo because Marion County officials have been no-shows at the last two scheduled meetings, denying the group a quorum to act.

In both meetings, the board was scheduled to consider a discrimination complaint against Marion County Commissioner Colm Willis. The complaint stems from a May 21 meeting when Willis and Sam Brentano tried and failed to defund training for therapists who work with transgender people.

The Behavioral Care Network oversees behavioral health programs for low-income residents in Marion and Polk counties. Marion County is represented on the board by Commissioners Brentano, Willis and Kevin Cameron, as well as County Administrator Jan Fritz.

Craig Pope, a Polk County Commissioner who chairs the health board, said Tuesday that Marion County’s absence is rendering the board useless.

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Besides the complaint, the board hasn’t been able to get to other business. The board on Tuesday planned to talk about awarding millions in “quality dollars” to local clinics that show improvements in care. 

“We can’t vote on anything because Marion County once again has chosen not to show up,” he said. “This is not helpful.”

Time is of the essence for the board. Recent changes in the way Oregon administers Medicaid dollars means the board’s responsibilities will be taken up by another organization starting next year. The board’s responsibilities will slowly shift to a new entity over 2020.

“We have critical meetings with things that need to be voted on,” said Pope. For example, the board needs to sever its contract with its executive director, Justin Hopkins, who earns a taxpayer-funded salary of $160,500 per year.

“Justin needs to be eventually terminated. We need to terminate his contract because we’re paying him to stay on and he’s not doing anything, and he has other opportunities he needs to be able to pursue.”

Pope said the board needs a quorum even to discuss how to handle the discrimination complaint because the board has no bylaws for how to handle such a complaint.

“I’m stuck in a Catch-22 here,” he said. “Marion County can say ‘We’re not coming to a meeting as long as that’s on the agenda.’ It’s possible. Note the tone of frustration in my voice.”

Marion County officials notified by email the healthcare board Monday they would not be able to attend.

“We recognize this will result in a lack of a quorum for the meeting, and apologize for any inconvenience,” wrote Jane Vetto, the county’s attorney.

In a statement through a spokesperson, the Marion County commissioners told Salem Reporter that there was a scheduling conflict and they are “working with the BCN on identifying alternative dates for the October meeting.”

The statement didn’t explain the scheduling conflict and county officials didn’t respond to written questions about that matter or comments that other board business suffered.

Hope McKnight, left, and Jake Miller pose outside of the offices of the Behavioral Care Network after showing up in protest to recent actions by Marion County officials. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

Actions ‘cowardly’ says transgender people

Anticipating talks of the discrimination complaint, several LGBTQ people showed up Tuesday to protest.

Without a quorum, board directors gave time for several people to share their thoughts. Those who talked mentioned the difficulties of living as an LGBTQ person in the modern world, and why its important there are behavioral health specialists who understand.

Some slammed the recent actions by Marion County commissioners.

Hope McKnight, a transgender female who has lived in Marion County for the past two years, said training for transgender specialists needs to be a priority.

“There are so many people that need this,” she said. “It’s hard to find a therapist who understands exactly what I’m going through.”

In May, Willis broached the idea that the Behavioral Care Network should stop paying for conferences that help train clinicians to diagnose gender dysphoria. Such diagnoses are necessary if a person wants to undergo surgery.

The idea was supported by Brentano, but failed to gain traction with other board members. Jackie Haddon, a board member and director of the behavioral health clinic Valley Mental Health, responded by filing a complaint against Willis, accusing him of discrimination.

Willis has said he was raising the issue as a budget concern, that the "number, nature and cost of these trainings and conferences have not been presented to the board... for discussion," he said in emails obtained my Salem Reporter.

Willis has also said he worried about the possibility children being diagnosed with gender dysphoria.

McKnight said her struggles with substance abuse early in her life and later abuse she endured would have been lessened if she’d found appropriate care sooner.

“My life would be completely different,” she said. “If I had something like this when I was a kid, I would have done it years ago. And I would have been a better person.”

Jake Miller, a transmasculine person from Salem, called the county officials “cowardly” for missing the last two meetings.

“If you’re going to do something that affects so many people’s lives and you don’t want to spend the time to hear from those people, and you don’t show up, that’s a cowardly thing to do,” Miller said.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Bryneslon at 503-575-9930, [email protected] or @TroyWB.

Correction, Oct. 7 — The Behavioral Care Network did hold a meeting Aug. 26 that Marion County Administrator Jan Fritz attended by phone. None of the Marion County Commissioners attended.