HELENA — Major changes are coming to mental health services in Lewis and Clark County, as an important provider says it plans to end its services in the county.
Western Montana Mental Health Center, headquartered in Missoula, has provided a variety of services in Lewis and Clark County. CEO Levi Anderson said county leaders invited the organization to come in and offer those services about five years ago. However, after the county decided on changes to those services, Anderson said Western leaders no longer feel they should continue their operations there.
Western’s operations included behavioral health specialists that work in the county detention center, as well as a crisis response team that provides mental health assistance to prevent 911 responses and other emergency situations from escalating. The organization also operated the Our Place drop-in center and the Journey Home crisis stabilization unit.
Last month, Lewis and Clark County leaders announced there would be changes in how those services are handled. Kellie McBride, the county’s director of criminal justice services, said they informed Western that they had decided to hire behavioral health staff for the detention center directly, instead of continuing to contract for them.
McBride said, as the county continues its jail improvement and diversion programs, leaders wanted to have more direct input on the behavioral health specialists.
“As we are tracking data – which is imperative to the work that we’re doing – we know that if we have those positions in house, we’ll have better access to the data, and we can have requirements on the staff that we couldn’t have by having it as contracted,” she said.
At the same time, the county also opened up a request for proposals for the contract for the crisis response team. Leaders said Western’s contract had been renewed for the last several years, but this time they had a responsibility to make sure the process was open.
“We need to ensure that we’re being fair to our entire community and really looking at what provider can come in and provide the best services for our community,” McBride said.
Anderson said the announcement of an RFP was concerning for his organization. He said they saw the crisis response team and the Journey Home as crucially connected, because the team has a role in determining in who is directed to that facility. He said they didn’t want to continue operating the Journey Home if there was a chance another organization would take over the crisis response team.
“There was a risk through an open RFP process that we would not have clinical input into those individuals who were admitted into that facility,” Anderson said. “That operationally would have been extremely challenging and created risk for the organization.”
Western decided not to bid in the RFP, which McBride said came as a surprise to the county.
Anderson said the organization then reevaluated its entire operation in Lewis and Clark County. He said leaders concluded their goal across the counties where they operate is to provide a “comprehensive continuum” of service for the clients they work with.
“We feel now, looking at the non-renewal of these agreements, that we’re not in a position to fully execute and achieve our mission in Lewis and Clark County with such a limited scope of service,” he said.
Anderson said Western was now planning to stop providing direct services in Lewis and Clark County. He said the crisis response team contract is set to expire at the end of December, while their agreement to operate the Journey Home had already expired. He said their agreement for Our Place runs through June 30, but that it isn’t in the organization or the county’s best interest for Western to continue providing that service alone.
Western currently has around 22 employees working in Lewis and Clark County. Anderson said leaders are working to find other positions in the organization for some of them, and positions with other providers in the county for the rest.
Both the county and Western say they are working with other local providers to ensure that there is a plan to keep these services covered, until permanent replacements are found.
“We’re certainly always sad to see a provider leave,” McBride said. “What we have seen in Western’s notice to leave the county is so many providers stepping up. We see this as an opportunity to work with those providers in a community, collaborative way.”'
“We understand that the service that we were providing was very much needed in this community, and we hope to work with other providers to create a transition plan to limit any disruption in service,” said Anderson.
The county’s initial RFP for the crisis response team gave only about 10 days for potential providers to respond. McBride said county leaders realized afterwards that that had been an unrealistic timeline, so they plan to reissue the RFP next week. She said the new RFP will likely remain open for about four weeks, so a permanent provider won’t be chosen until 2020.
McBride said the county is finalizing job descriptions as it prepares to hire behavioral health staff for the detention center. She said the positions will be posted in the next few weeks, and they will be open for an additional three weeks or so. In the meantime, she said another provider is interested in placing one of its therapists at the center temporarily.
McBride said the county will host a facilitated discussion with community partners next week to talk more about what can be done to continue these services in the interim.