School district adds employee assistance program

by Daniel Mckay
Whitefish Pilot | January 29, 2020 1:00 AM

Employees at Whitefish School District will soon have more options for mental health, legal and financial counseling.

The Whitefish School Board on Jan. 7 approved a new employee assistance program for the district through First Choice Health, which operates primarily in the American northwest.

Through the program, employees at Whitefish Schools can set up in-person, text messaging, phone or video conference counseling sessions for a variety of issues, including legal services, childcare and family services, elder care, financial consultation, home ownership and more.

The program extends to all school district employees, not just those on the district’s health insurance plan, District Business Director Lucie Shea said.

“What I like about this is that, if implemented, it will be implemented from the bottom up. It’s actually the employees who were approaching the members of the health insurance committee, asking for an employee assistance program,” Shea said. “Maybe only 10 percent or 15 percent of our employees will ever reach out and make a phone call to a behavioral health specialist, but maybe that 15 percent of people really need it, and we can help them make changes in their lives.”

The cost of the program runs at $1.65 per school district employee each month, bringing the yearly total for the cost districtwide to about $4,000.

In the program, employees are entitled to a certain number of consultations for different topics, like one free 30-minute phone call or face-to-face legal services consultation. Then, if more consultations are needed, employees can pay a discounted fee for services.

As part of the district’s pricing proposal for First Choice, employees are allowed up to three visits per person per area of concern each year.

On the district side, First Choice also helps the district when it’s dealing with employees that need to be assigned counseling, Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt said.

“From a human resources perspective, if you have an employee that’s struggling somehow in their work, here’s another resource of support that we can use which to me just adds to our repertoire of how we support people and help them do their jobs,” she said.

The board voted 6-1 in favor of implementing the program. Board member Betsy Kohnstamm voted against the motion.

Kohnstamm voiced concerns with the idea of the district picking out the counselors employees will see if they need help, though Davis Schmidt noted any employee can still go to their own preferred counselor or attorney outside program.

In the case of mandating mental health services for troubled employees, Davis Schmidt said the district already has the power to assign counseling to someone if needed.

Kohnstamm also took issue with the lack of face-to-face services.

“I’m a little leery about this Skype mental health [counseling], talking to someone in Seattle about your problems,” she said. “For some people that’s great, if you just have an issue that you want to keep very private, that’s a way to do it because this community is pretty small. But to actually cure a long term, serious problem, I’m not sure.”

“This isn’t going to cure a long term, serious problem, given that it’s only three sessions anyway,” Davis Schmidt replied. “What it does is help you get started.”

Speaking during public comment Todd Lengacher said outside of just mental health, the benefits the program brings can be monumental for individuals.

“The conversation has circled a lot around mental health. In the couple of schools where I have worked, I think people have also taken advantage of the opportunity to make an initial phone call to see if you need to make more calls and spend more money on an issue — like around legal services,” Lengacher said. “I think those are incredibly valuable.”