Budget woes force Valley Mental Health to cut up to 2,200 patients

Published: Friday, June 28 2013 5:25 p.m. MDT

Members of a support group for people suffering with mental health, gather to share their stories at the Valley Mental Health Clinic in Salt Lake City Thursday, April 4, 2012. Due to budget cuts, Valley Mental Health will reduce the number of patients it serves by as much as 2,200 people. Patients with lower less severe mental health issues will be referred to new providers.

Brian Nicholson, OKespa–ol

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SALT LAKE CITY — A major shift is coming for hundreds of local mental health patients.

Due to budget cuts, Valley Mental Health — the agency that provides treatment and services for people experiencing serious mental illness, substance abuse and behavioral problems in Salt Lake, Summit and Tooele counties — will be dropping up to 2,200 Salt Lake County patients and transition them to an outside administrator.

The reason for the change is a $2 million cut in fiscal year funding from $24 million the previous year, said Gary Larcenaire, president and CEO of Valley Mental Health.

“We are adapting our system to adjust to the (reduction),” he said.

While the agency serves people of all ages, the changes will only affect adult clients with the lowest levels of severity, he said.

“Valley will no longer have the resources to deliver their care for their illness,” he explained. Instead, patients will be referred to OptumHealth — a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group — an administrator that provides support for mental health clients.

On Monday, July 1, about 400 notices will be sent to Utah clients throughout Salt Lake County, with 1,600 to as many 2,200 clients eventually impacted by Sept. 1, Larcenaire said. Despite the changes, no other services will be affected.

“We have many lines of business,” Larcenaire said. “We serve children with autism, mental health issues, substance abuse, (but) none of those services will be affected.”

In addition, patients with severe mental health issues will also see no change or disruption in their regular care, he said.

Patients in the lower end of the severity spectrum (tier 1 and 2) may have their care transitioned to OptumHealth where they will be connected with a new provider. However, Larcenaire said, their care will continue as usual.

“We came up with tier 1 and 2 to organize our clients to ensure that we were only transitioning out the least challenged or severe of the clients that we serve,” he said.

Tier 1 includes clients who have not been hospitalized in a psychiatric institution or have not contacted a crisis hotline for at least 12 months, while tier 2 clients fit the same criteria but over a six-month period. He said about 800 patients in tier 3, the highest risk category, will be unaffected by the change.

In 2011, Salt Lake County officials announced that OptumHealth would take over management of Salt Lake County's mental health services.

Valley Mental Health had been the sole provider and manager of Salt Lake County's mental health services for nearly 25 years. Valley has served approximately 18,000 mental health clients a year, ranging in age from infants to senior citizens, with most clients on Medicaid.

Salt Lake County first selected OptumHealth in 2010 through a competitive bidding process. Valley Mental Health officials protested the selection, which prompted an administrative review. However, county officials stuck by the decision to award the bid to OptumHealth.

In April 2011, Valley Mental Health officials announced the layoffs of 100 employees, which at the time was described as a cost-cutting measure. As for the new cuts and their impact, transitioning patients will be instructed on how to contact OptumHealth, Larcenaire said.

In addressing the potential concerns of transitioning patients, Larcenaire said: “There is a mechanism in place through Optum to get you from where you are now to a new provider.”

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