St. Coletta of Wisconsin in Jefferson is hoping to provide some of the services and jobs that are being eliminated by Watertown's Bethesda Lutheran Communities, its president says.

St. Coletta and Bethesda have been serving intellectually and developmentally disabled persons since both were founded in 1904. However, on Friday, Bethesda announced that it is closing its group homes, day programs and employment services in Watertown and throughout Wisconsin.

Its corporate office will remain in Watertown, albeit with staff reductions.

"Providing the very highest quality living and program services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities has always been challenging, given we experience financial loss due to the low level of Medicaid reimbursement," said Don Klein, senior director of public affairs at Bethesda.

He noted that Bethesda's revenue streams have been drying up due, in part, to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Our costs have skyrocketed quickly and revenue coming from many of our services and fundraising has diminished," Klein said. "The economic recession is expected to hit state budgets hard, further reducing the already inadequate funding for many of the services we provide, so as a result, we will be closing our group homes, day programs and employment services in Wisconsin."

Bethesda College and Bethesda's thrift stores are not affected by these decisions, and its new residential community concept — Bethesda Cornerstone Village — will have a presence in Wisconsin.

"While our corporate office will remain in Watertown, we have significantly reduced the number of positions there, as well," Klein said.

He noted that Bethesda officials have been working closely with state leaders in preparation for the transition of people Bethesda supports, and it is notifying parents and guardians of plans.

"We will partner every step of the way with the people we support, families and guardians, and care managers to transition care to another provider of their choice," Klein said. "We will also be supporting our employees who are impacted by this decision. We care very much for those who have given so much in service to people we support, and we are sad that they will be leaving us through no fault of their own."

Klein called the decisions leading up to Friday's announcement difficult.

"But they are necessary for us to thrive in the future and move forward with our vision to be the innovator for our industry," he said. "We are committed to providing new and innovative services, including Behavioral Health, Financial Services, Independent Living, Transition Services and Employment Services, and putting smart technology to work. These services have the potential to transform the lives of the 6.5 million people in the U.S. who have an intellectual and developmental disability. We look forward to helping more people achieve the brighter future they deserve."

On Sunday, Ted Behncke, president of St. Coletta of Wisconsin, expressed his sorrow at hearing the news.

"We are saddened to hear the news that Bethesda will be closing much of its programming across the state; we were both founded in 1904 and together have served persons for disabilities for over a century," he said.

He noted that some of Bethesda’s closures will occur in the extreme north of the state and in the southern end of the Fox Valley, areas in which St. Coletta currently provides no services.

However, "St. Coletta provides both residential, day programming and employment services in the Milwaukee and Jefferson areas and we encourage families needing services to reach out to our admissions department," Behncke said. "St. Coletta has some residential openings, but will have the most ability to assist in vocational programs and employment services in the near term. Our mission at St. Coletta desires to meet the unmet needs of those with developmental disabilities and other challenges, and we are committed to help in any way we can."

Behncke said that Bethesda had not reached out to St. Coletta directly regarding any transitions so far. However, some of its clients and employees have.

"In the days since the announcement, we have begun to receive many service requests from individuals at Bethesda and we are working with them to provide needs assessments to determine our ability to serve them," Behncke said. "We are working to accommodate as many individuals as we are able to, to offset the ripple effect this will have in the community."

He continued: "In addition to Bethesda’s individuals, our Human Resources Department has received calls from Bethesda employees with new opportunities to work in direct care and other positions at St. Coletta of Wisconsin. With services in Jefferson and the Milwaukee area, including Waukesha County, we have a number of job opportunities currently available."

Behncke said he certainly understands what Bethesda has been going through.

"We sincerely empathize with Bethesda and others in the care industry they face when it comes to the low level rate reimbursement we receive," he said. "The issue is not limited to Wisconsin, as the low reimbursement problem has caused a staffing crisis across the nation."

Behncke said that central to the issue is skilled labor and the ability to hire and maintain employees.

"The overall job market is very dynamic and the care industry is affected by the competition from all employers," he said. "St. Coletta launched a program four years ago to build our team and have been fortunate to largely keep them, but the pressure is intense. Caregivers require high skills and need to be respected with good pay and benefits.”

He pointed out that, sadly, many service providers are closing their doors due to these issues and it is has captured the interest of Governor Tony Evers, who he said is committed to provide relief. His seated Task Force on Caregiving is sending its recommendations to the governor this month.

"The current Family Care system in Wisconsin started around 2006, and has not seen substantive rate increases since then, so many of the initiatives center around that issue, but also larger proposals that would improve access to caregivers and the support for them," Behncke said. "One undeniable truth is there is an increasing need due to closures of care organizations and providers. We have expanded our operations each year to meet the increasing need and will continue to add services."

Bethesda reportedly has community-based housing in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Indiana, New Jersey, Texas, Colorado, Kansas, Oregon, California and Washington state.

According to the Watertown Historical Society, Bethesda was founded in 1904 as Faith House in a rented building on Margaret Street.

St. Coletta also was founded that year, by the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi in Milwaukee. Its mission is to provide quality residential, day/vocational programs and services for persons with developmental disabilities and other challenges.

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