The six Benton and Franklin county commissioners agreed Friday to study the possibility of privatizing mental health services.
Several seemed open to potentially moving ahead with the idea — proposed by Benton County Commissioner Shon Small — if some questions are addressed.
Small will work with Franklin County Commissioner Bob Koch in the next several weeks to find answers to questions that all the county commissioners will submit.
Friday’s special meeting lasted about an hour. The Benton County commissioners met at the justice center in Kennewick and spoke via conference call with their Franklin County counterparts, who met in the courthouse in downtown Pasco.
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Privatizing mental health services would lead to the elimination of the Crisis Response Unit, a bicounty agency that’s part of Benton and Franklin Counties Human Services.
Small has said switching to a private provider would lead to greater efficiency and improved services, reduce county liability and save money for enhanced care.
It also would put the counties in line with the state’s vision to combine its chemical dependency, mental health and health care systems by 2020, he has said.
Small points to Lourdes Health Network in Pasco as a potential good fit for taking over services, although he said Friday that he’ll recommend putting out a request for proposals to find the right provider.
That way “everyone is out there, and may the best entity win,” he said.
Franklin County Commissioner Brad Peck said he’s not inherently opposed to privatization but has questions that need to be answered.
“One of the primary issues I’d want to have addressed is the potential impact on our current Crisis Response and those employees, whether or not — if we privatize — there’s an opportunity to provide some assurance of employment for them,” Peck said.
Small believes Crisis Response employees would have no trouble finding jobs with the private entity, he said.
The possibility of privatization has drawn support and concern.
One client, William Hanning, said at a recent community meeting he worries a change would throw off his treatment plan and potentially lead to a breakdown.
“I was really beat up when I got (to Crisis Response). 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.”
Ken Roughton, director of the regional support network Greater Columbia Behavioral Health, said during Friday’s meeting that he expects clients would notice little change if the counties move ahead with privatization.