Despite Aspen Hope Center pleas, county’s new mental health plan approved | AspenTimes.com

Despite Aspen Hope Center pleas, county’s new mental health plan approved

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Pitkin County's plan to consolidate mental health services under one new partnership did not sit well Wednesday with supporters of an excluded local nonprofit that helps people through crises and trauma.

And while the criticism of the new, nearly $500,000 contract by proponents of the Aspen Hope Center did not prompt Pitkin County commissioners to scuttle the new proposal, it did send a message.

"I understand the plea today," Commissioner Rachel Richards said. "But we can't turn our backs on the work that's been done. This work needs to go forward."

However, at Richards' suggestion, the county board agreed to give Aspen Hope Center $25,000 for 2018, the same amount the board contributed to the organization in 2017. The money will come from either the remaining balance in the property tax-funded Healthy Community Fund or the general fund.

"That was very kind of them to offer that up," said Michelle Muething, the Hope Center's executive director. "But I think they realized there was a huge piece left out of this."

The new partnership combines the resources of the county, the city of Aspen, Aspen School District and Aspen Valley Hospital to better address the community's mental health care and substance abuse needs. Those needs were not adequately being addressed previously because of a fragmented system that led to gaps in care, officials have said.

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After more than a year of study, a committee that included members of the new partnership and other community groups issued a request for proposals for a new collaborative system that could plug those gaps. This fall, the committee settled on Mountain Family Health — a primary care provider that operates a clinic in Basalt — and Mind Springs Health, which has offered mental health and substance abuse care in the Roaring Fork Valley for years.

Under the contract approved Wednesday, Mountain Family would hire two more specialists to screen and treat people for problems related to behavioral health — the catch-all term for mental health and substance abuse — at the Basalt clinic. The organization would also hire two more case managers at the clinic for people with behavioral health issues.

The Aspen School District also will be able to hire a full-time therapist for all three schools, while Basalt schools will receive a part-time therapist.

Patients who cannot be treated at Mountain Family's clinic will be referred to Mind Springs for treatment. Mind Springs will also supply a part-time nurse to monitor inmates at the Pitkin County Jail who take psychiatric medications.

In addition, Mind Springs will create a rapid-response mobile unit to stabilize people in crisis and keep them stable. That unit will include a full-time therapist and full-time case manager.

The Aspen Hope Center performs many of those crisis duties now and wanted to be part of the new contract, Muething said. However, the organization would have lost its identity and autonomy if it had agreed to work under the new contract, so it withdrew from the process, she said.

"You can't force a public and a private entity to become one," Muething said in an interview after Tuesday's more than three-hour meeting. "There has to be a way for an independent entity to remain an independent entity."

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, a member of the committee that issued the request for new mental health care proposals and a vocal supporter of the Hope Center, said he thought there was a place for the organization in the new partnership. But when the Hope Center withdrew, the committee had to move forward, he said.

"I don't think they would lose their identity," DiSalvo said. "There would have been concessions. That's what collaboration is all about. You've got to be in it to win it."

Numerous supporters of the Hope Center packed the commissioners' meeting room Tuesday and passionately defended the organization, while at the same time complimenting county officials for trying to solve a longtime serious community problem.

Bill Mitchell, a local pediatrician, called Mind Springs' response time for crisis cases "deplorable" and urged commissioners to make sure it improves and that qualified people are hired.

"I applaud your effort, but I have my reservations," Mitchell said.

Many Hope Center supporters praised the group's ability to respond quickly to a crisis and to continue that support for as long as traumatized people need it.

Candice Oksenhorn extolled the group's "heart," and said she could call anytime of the day or night "and they were there." She said her biggest concern is that the Hope Center isn't ostracized.

Christie Henderson, the Hope Center's new outreach coordinator, said the nonprofit makes a big difference in the community.

"The Aspen Hope Center saved my life," she said. "Michelle stood by my side and totally taught me the meaning of hope."

Temple Glassier, whose son committed suicide in Basalt recently, said that not only did Hope Center officials help her, they went to Basalt High School to counsel kids in response to the suicide and found 42 students in need of crisis intervention.

"Don't hurt the Hope Center," Glassier said.

Jeffrey Siegel, Hope Center board member, said the organization receives 700 calls a year for help, which likely cannot all be handled by the new partnership. He urged commissioners to put off approving the new partnership for a year and come up with a better deal.

Nan Sundeen, the county's head of Health and Human Services, said the county highly values both Mind Springs and the Hope Center. However, she pointed out that suicide and crisis intervention are only a part of the services to be provided under the new contract.

"Approve this as a starting place to bring people to the table," she said.

Board Chairman George Newman supported both moving the new partnership forward and donating funds to the Hope Center.

"Waiting a year or two is not going to help the community," he said.

Richards agreed, saying that even if they delayed approval of the new mental health proposal, there was no guarantee the Hope Center would agree to take part.

"The Hope Center chose not to participate," she said. "If you want to be a part of it … you've got to get in the game."

The $488,000 contract is good for 2018 only. Future contracts could include the Hope Center, officials said.

Most of the funding for the contract is coming from a county property tax known as the Healthy Community Fund.

jauslander@aspentimes.com