Officials tell Benton County that mental health care privatization works for them

Crisis Response Unit in Kennewick.
Crisis Response Unit in Kennewick. Tri-City Herald file

Officials from across the region spoke Tuesday to Benton County commissioners about how privatizing mental health care is working in their communities.

The commissioners have discussed for months the possibility of having a private agency take over providing mental health services, namely crisis response.

Benton and Franklin counties provide mental health services through the bicounty human services department.

The special meeting at the Benton County Justice Center was called to discuss the possibility of privatization. No Franklin County commissioners attended the meeting, though county Administrator Keith Johnson was in the crowd.

Walla Walla recently made the switch to privatize mental health care, contracting with Central Washington Comprehensive Mental Health.

Walla Walla County Commissioner Perry Dozier told Benton commissioners and a small crowd that the transition has resulted in “tremendous benefits.”

Since the agency has taken over, there has been an estimated 50 percent increase in clients served and about 25 to 30 more staff providing services, said Rick Weaver, president of the agency.

The move to go private has led to better overall services, lower administration costs and improved mental health care in the county jail, Dozier said. The commissioner also noted that the Yakima-based company hired on many of the mental health professionals previously employed by the county.

“We have the same people working with those clients that worked with them before,” Dozier said.

The meeting was also attended by Yakima Commissioner Kevin Bouchey, who voiced his support for the private mental health services offered in his county. The county contracts with Comprehensive Mental Health and two other providers for services in the area.

“We have had really good results from those contracted services,” Bouchey told Benton County commissioners.

Weaver urged the commissioners to develop a detailed plan for the future of human services programs in the area.

Officials in Benton and Franklin counties need to sort out how human services programs will operate or risk losing control of their design when the state moves toward an integrated system, Weaver said.

“This is a golden window to do something,” he said.

Benton County Commissioner Shon Small, who has led the push for privatization, has argued that allowing an outside agency to take over would allow for better services, reduce liability and get the county in line with the state’s plan to integrate mental health and health care systems by 2020.

The move would dissolve the Crisis Response Unit, a bicounty agency, and could eliminate administrative positions, officials have said.

Opponents of the move have voiced concerns about the effect it could have on patients, the loss of jobs and a potential for a dip in services.

Small told the Herald before the meeting that privatization may happen within the next six months.

“We are looking at reducing liability. We are looking at reducing costs and leveraging those costs to provide services,” he said. “We want to make sure we have the best system possible.”

Tyler Richardson: 509-582-1556; trichardson@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @Ty_richardson