OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services
In the legal world, negotiating and approving contracts can be much the same whether the contract is for widgets or human services.
What the contract accomplishes, however, makes a big difference. The former seals deals, the latter can save lives, and it is the latter that has made Adam Lancer’s work more meaningful to him as the general counsel and compliance officer for nonprofit OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services.
His work is not all contracts of course; he’s also responsible for monitoring how OHEL lives up to the service agreements and grants it holds with federal, state and local agencies.
He’s a legal watchdog at a nonprofit providing social services and care, and it carries a burden. But it also has its rewards, and he can enjoy those fruits even if he’s not a direct care provider.
“I’ve always been interested in advocating on behalf of others that are less able to advocate for themselves,” Lancer says. “Doing this, you learn staff has a tremendous amount of demand placed on them. They’re working with clients with disabilities and they’re taking on some very important work.”
Caring for all
Established in 1969 to provide services and placement for foster children who were removed from abusive situations, OHEL has expanded over the decades to provide a wide array of services for people of all ages throughout the New York City metropolitan area and, in cases of trauma or abuse, throughout the country.
In residential and nonresidential settings, OHEL, with headquarters in Brooklyn, provides a host of services, including residential housing, outpatient counseling, day programs, and job skill training for children and adults with psychiatric and developmental disabilities. Also available are school-based services, geriatric care, foster care and domestic violence services, trauma and bereavement services and consultations.
About 13,000 people annually receive some form of care or service from OHEL’s staff of 1,200, working with an annual budget of $68 million, Lancer says.
In 2020, those services will continue to grow. Working with an outside consultant, OHEL is seeking New York state licensure to add medical care services to the mental health programs available at the agency’s main office. It’s a model that improves care and services by treating co-occurring conditions in a setting where communication and collaboration are made easier, Lancer says.
Providing medical care along with the mental health services requires Lancer to build the legal structure that minimizes OHEL’s liability and exposure. In addition, compliance with state and federal rules including Medicaid and Medicare eligibility and billing, and HIPAA and other patient confidentiality requirements is key.
Since the provision of expansive health care services is new, OHEL will need to establish various administrative and program procedures to ensure top rate services and regulatory compliance. The auditing of such programs will also represent a challenge as it involves a host of new services and related regulations, Lancer explains.
Adding health care to the mental health services OHEL offers is crucial to ensure a holistic approach. More than 15 years ago Lancer worked to develop the agency’s Department of Quality Improvement to ensure it was properly using and making the best use of the public money and grants funding most of its budget.
OHEL’s operations and programs are regularly audited by the federal, state and local departments that fund it through grants and receive consistently excellent scores. Lancer says it’s crucial to be proactive and that systems were in place before many of the reporting requirements were created.
“In this role, very few people like to be policed,” Lancer says. “So the goal is to do it in a way that is positive and collaborative. We’ll look at a program at random, and work with staff to make sure client safety requirements and proper reporting and billing procedures are being followed.”
OHEL CEO David Mandel says the approach is both valued and appreciated.
“The services and the regulations have to be right. Adam also has a direct line to interact with OHEL’s Board of Directors who are ultimately responsible for the agency’s oversight,” Mandel says. “While it’s easy and all too common for company staff to have a degree of mistrust of compliance and regulatory staff, Adam is successful in large part due to the respect he accords his colleagues and his good listening ear. He also emphasizes that he doesn’t have to be right.”
To augment the auditing process, Lancer also created an anonymous tip line accessible to staff and clients. Tips received have led him and OHEL staff to visit facilities and programs during off-peak hours to determine if there are violations.
The tips have also created more staff training using webinars and other methods to review issues of client safety, compliance, sexual harassment and employment discrimination.
The results improve care and reinforce or create new procedures and protocols, but there is also a very practical reason for self-auditing, he adds.
“If you don’t do the documentation right, you are not going to have the money,” Lancer summarizes.
And if the audits show room for improvement at times, he says they also show him much more about OHEL’s staff.
“They’re the heroes. They’re working 24/7 and there’s a tremendous level of devotion. They also have to meet a myriad of requirements that are unique to the social services field,” he says.
Work that counts
Lancer’s devotion is no less apparent—it marks the course of his career arc.
After graduating from the State University of New York Albany with a degree in political science, he then earned his J.D. from New York Law School in 1996. From 1998 to 2001, he prosecuted child abuse and neglect cases for New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services. In 2000, he joined OHEL.
Lancer’s work at OHEL is not very different from what an in-house counsel at a for-profit business handles: contracts, employment issues, risk management and regulations are not unique to the social services field, he notes. The purpose and fulfillment are, though.
“You’re taking your legal training and doing many of the same things people do in the for-profit sector,” he says, “but you’re doing it to a large extent with the mission of helping people with disabilities. You are working with staff people who are very mission driven.”
Driven is a good word for Lancer, too. A father of seven who also has a consulting business, he commutes 2.5 hours to his office each day and spends time away from the office observing his faith as an Orthodox Jew.
In the course of his years in the courts and at OHEL, Lancer has seen vulnerable people in crisis, but the stories are not always unhappy and his efforts to help the agency succeed are an extension of his faith, he says.
“I have to make a living, I have seven kids,” he says. “But if I can get up in the morning and help people with disabilities, it’s of merit and a special privilege. I also get to see tremendous good in the staff and the clients who grow and live more independently through the agency’s good work.”
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