SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake County Council is expected to act Tuesday on a request to fund an independent evaluation of mental health services funded by the county.
Earlier this month, advocates for people with mental illness asked Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams to conduct a review of the entire system. The request followed an announcement by Valley Mental Health officials that it was no longer able to provide services to as many as 2,200 patients due to budget cuts.
Following that meeting, McAdams announced his plans to seek an outside review of county-funded mental health services.
Council Chairman Steve DeBry said Monday that he supports McAdams' request.
“We need to find out what has happened, who's responsible, what the heck is going on here because there are people in dire need of those services. That buck stops with us, and we’re going to find out what’s going on,” DeBry said.
Rebecca Glather, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness - Utah, said the county's system has undergone several changes in recent years. After 25 years of Valley Mental Health being the sole manager and provider of mental health services for the county, the administration — in a competitive process — selected OptumHealth to manage the county's mental health services. It is not a direct service provider but contracts with providers, among them Valley Mental Health.
"Certainly our primary concern is always for the individual, that individuals are getting the service that they need and they're being assisted in making a smooth transition," Glather said.
"More broadly, we need a system that can work well together in order to provide for those needs. Having the partners work really closely together helps the whole system to function better."
Asked for a comment in advance of Tuesday's meeting, Valley Mental Health President and CEO Gary Larcenaire said in a statement: “We appreciate the mayor's leadership in seeking to evaluate the mental health redesign in Salt Lake County.”
An OptumHealth spokesman referred media inquiries to Salt Lake County officials.
Lori Bays, Salt Lake County's director of human services, said if the County Council approves the request, it would likely take a couple of months to issue a request for proposals and form a committee that would recommend an evaluator to the McAdams administration.
Bays said the review would likely take six months to complete. "That's an aggressive timeline, but we hope to get it all done within six months or so," she said.
The sooner the better, said Ginger Phillips, a certified peer support specialist and mental health advocate who requested the review.
"I’m very worried for my peers. Thursday, Aug. 1, will be the last day of the treatment for many people from Valley (Mental Health)," she said. "There are actually people going into crisis over this."
OptumHealth is providing displaced patients with referrals to new providers, and some clients qualify to appeal the decision to discontinue their treatment with Valley Mental Health, which says it cut patients from its caseload because of reductions in funding it receives from the county.
Phillips said the notion of starting an appeals process overwhelms some people.
“When you say ‘appeal’ to a peer, that word 'appeal' is a huge word. 'Oh, we have to go through all these papers.' It can seem kind of overwhelming, especially if you've just been cut from services. You're like in shock. 'How do I stay? What do I do?'" she said.
Glather said NAMI wants to ensure there is a smooth transition for mental health patients with "follow-up and oversight, not just a phone number but that everyone who needs to have assistance gets it and they're able to get into other providers. I think the jury’s still out on that."
DeBry, said he, too, worries about the big picture of clients not getting what they need. A review would help clarify matters.
“Are they doing what they should be doing and are they doing what’s right? We need to find that out because I’m not going to let these people go without the care and treatment they deserve and need. It’s our responsibility to see that they get it,” he said.
Bays said a system evaluation would be helpful for all who play a role in providing mental health services in Salt Lake County, as well as those who are patients.
"To me, transparency is the way to conduct business, especially in government. As a county, we have nothing to hide and we feel confident whatever recommendations the evaluator comes back with are things we will be able to use and make our system better. I think it's a good thing," Bays said.
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