Commissioner Shon Small is leading a charge to privatize mental health services in Benton County, a move that would eliminate the Crisis Response Unit in Kennewick.
The county would no longer provide crisis response and other mental health services. Instead, a private agency would create a “one-stop shop” for a range of services.
Small contends the switch would provide more efficient and improved services to mentally ill people, reduce the county’s liability and free up an estimated half-million dollars for enhanced care.
It also would put Benton County in line with the state’s vision to combine its chemical dependency, mental health and health care systems by 2020, he said.
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Crisis response officials declined to be interviewed about Small’s proposal, but several spoke out a recent public forum, questioning if it would improve services. And it’s unclear if Franklin County would follow suit.
The Crisis Response Unit is a bicounty agency that specializes in crisis intervention, often referring clients to other providers for long-term mental health care. It operates as part of the Benton-Franklin Human Services Department and had more than 18,500 contacts and calls for service in 2014.
Some of the 26 employees would lose their jobs, Small said. The number of positions that would be cut has not yet been identified.
The county would not have to pay rent on the new Crisis Response Unit building on North Morain Street, which staff recently moved into.
That money, Small said, would then be “put back in the community” to improve mental health care programs.
The commissioner says the idea is in the “investigation stage” and there is no time frame for a change.
“I have had some time to take a look at the big picture of things,” he said. “I truly believe this is in the best interest of the consumers.”
Neither of the other commissioners, Jerome Delvin and Jim Beaver, would return calls to talk about the proposal. However, at a recent meeting, both said it should be studied more.
Linda Robb, director of the Benton Franklin Human Services Department, declined to talk about the issue with the Herald. She expressed concerns at the same meeting, saying funding would be lost, positions erased and longtime staff affected.
Gordon Cable, Crisis administrator, also could not be reached by the Herald. Kyle Sullivan, a supervisor at Crisis, said he was not permitted to talk about the issue.
Some Crisis staff spoke out at the recent community meeting, addressing concern over their jobs and whether the move would actually improve services for mentally ill people.
William Hanning told Small and others he is concerned the move would throw off his treatment plan and lead to a potential mental breakdown.
Hanning has battled bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, general anxiety and a panic disorder for years, he said. The mental health issues have led to suicidal and homicidal thoughts.
Over the last six months, Crisis staff and others have helped Hanning begin to turn his life around, he said. He is scared new staff and a building switch could lead him back down a dark path.
“I was really beat up when I got here. I was scared, I was hurt, I was lonely, and they showed me compassion and I began to get better. I began to heal,” Hanning said. “If I start feeling paranoid or depressed, I have no one to go to if they take Crisis away.”
Small has already identified Lourdes Health Network in Pasco as a good fit to take over providing services currently offered by the Crisis Response Unit, he said.
However, the county would likely seek requests for proposals for the services.
Small is adamant that no deal between the county and Lourdes has been struck. Barbara Mead, vice president of behavioral health and physician clinics at Lourdes, confirmed at a community meeting that no deal is in place.
However, Small is optimistic that a majority of the positions at the Crisis Response Unit could be saved if Lourdes is awarded the contract.
His vision is to merge staff at Crisis with staff at Lourdes to create a “best-of-the-best” team of mental health professionals, he said.
“It would be a lot more conformed under a one-stop shop,” Small said. “A person actually goes to one place and has their needs met. Right now you go to Crisis Response, get assessed, then subcontracted out to someone else. A majority go to Lourdes.”
Franklin County commissioners have had discussions about the topic, though there has not been any formal recommendation or action, Commissioner Brad Peck confirmed. They also have expressed interest in seeing a request for proposals.
“The board is not adverse to considering privatization, but (also) we don’t feel like we have the necessary information and data to determine if this idea is in the best interest of our constituents,” Peck said.
Small would like to see Franklin County follow suit, he said.
“We would much rather go hand in hand and dissolve (Crisis) jointly so the people of our counties know this is right move,” he said.
Small understands concerns from staff and others, but moving Crisis will lead to better care for mentally ill people, he said.
“The transition will be smooth,” Small said.