Holistic Touch

Before he met JoAnne Mandel, Steven Berk seemed headed toward a bad end.
Berk had a fierce appetite for alcohol and drugs, suffered from depression and an eating disorder, and had almost lost the will to look after himself. Desperate to get a grip on his life, Berk entered an intensive therapy program at the River Oaks Health Alliance, a community mental health center founded by Mandel in 1992. Berk's therapy regimen, known as the "Wellness Program," has earned the 56-year-old Mandel much praise in alternative medicine circles. Her reputation spread locally with the help of Getting Well Again, a half-hour television program broadcast by Access Houston. The show featured Mandel — an intense and attractive woman with a stunning mane of red hair — discussing mental-health issues from a distinctly New Age perspective.

The program, which still airs occasionally, evolved from Mandel's practice at the River Oaks Health Alliance, known as ROHA. In a tidy, two-story brick building at 1414 West Clay, Mandel's staff of counselors, acupuncturists, hypnotherapists and chiropractors offers so-called "mind-body" healing, along with potent doses of spiritual guidance, for every malady from drug addiction to PMS.

Many practitioners of traditional medicine scoff at such techniques. But Mandel can boast a devoted clientele, some of whom do not hesitate to say she's saved their lives.

But not all of those who have undergone treatment with JoAnne Mandel hold her in such high regard. Some say that Mandel gained their confidence with a gentle empathy while billing Medicare and other insurers for exorbitant sums of money. Among the most disgruntled ex-patients are those who once lived at the H.E.L.P. House, a taxpayer-supported housing project for homeless men with AIDS that is owned and run by Mandel's nonprofit social-service agency, the River Oaks Health Association. Former residents claim Mandel billed their Medicare accounts as much as $14,000 a month for Wellness Program sessions they were required to attend.

Mandel hardly has a better reputation among the therapists, counselors and social workers who have worked for her. They claim she is motivated by money rather than the good mental health of her patients. In 1994, a handful of holistic healers — usually a hard-to-rile bunch — accused Mandel of bilking them of thousands of dollars in insurance reimbursements.

Steve Berk knew none of this when he enrolled in the Wellness Program in early 1996. That July, he was arrested for drug possession, and served a four-and-a-half-month sentence. He was released from jail in November, with no place to go. Everyone he knew, it seemed, had washed their hands of him — except for JoAnne Mandel. She gave Berk an apartment at the H.E.L.P. House, and he resumed his sessions in the Wellness Program, which combines traditional Western mental-health practices with yoga, hypnotherapy and other holistic-healing techniques.

And so it was that Berk gained a new appreciation for sobriety and pulled his life together. In fact, he may have begun to see things a little too clearly, at least for JoAnne Mandel's sake.

After his release from jail, Berk noticed that the Wellness Program had changed. The sessions for H.E.L.P. House residents no longer took place at the West Clay facility, but at a dank, depressing apartment complex near the Astrodome. The complex is owned by a nonprofit organization called the Paraclete Foundation to house roughly 25 people suffering from schizophrenia or other serious mental illnesses. In February, Mandel contracted with the foundation to provide therapy to Paraclete residents, and moved her H.E.L.P. House clients there for treatment as well.

When he first saw the place, Berk was reminded of the dumps where he used to buy crack cocaine. The walls were unpainted and the windows were filthy, at least the ones not cracked or broken. There was only one bathroom, and it was so dirty the female therapists wouldn't use it, preferring to walk around the corner to a convenience store.

Berk objected to having to go there every day, but he had no choice: Mandel required attendance in the Wellness Program as a condition of living at the H.E.L.P. House.

After six weeks of the daily sessions, Berk had progressed enough to begin the transition to something resembling a normal life, or so he thought. Mandel disagreed, insisting he wasn't ready. She had almost convinced him that he was too sick to leave the H.E.L.P. House when Berk began to examine his Medicare statements. He was shocked to discover that Mandel had billed the government-funded insurance program more than $46,000 from the time he was released from jail in mid-November through March. Convinced there had to be some mistake, he asked Mandel for a detailed statement of his treatment. Instead, she sent him a series of invoices totaling $12,444, the portion of his therapy costs that had not been paid by Medicare.

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Brian Wallstin