Vail Health goes all in on behavioral health
EAGLE COUNTY — Confronted with the enormity of Eagle County’s behavioral health needs, locals and agencies knew what they needed.
Months of discussion revealed they needed just about everything: programs, professionals, beds and resources. Most of all, they needed a champion — an entity that was willing to lead the charge both organizationally and financially to make meaningful inroads in the effort to improve behavioral health services for locals.
On Thursday, Vail Health announced it would be that champion.
The local hospital and health care provider committed $60 million in funding over the next 10 years to transform behavioral health services in the Eagle River Valley. In partnership with Eagle County and other community groups, a new nonprofit collaborative will be created to build needed facilities, improve access to providers and lower barriers to accessing behavioral health care across the valley.
“This is a transformative commitment,” said Eagle County Public Health and Environment director Chris Lindley. “This is Vail Health going all in, with the community, on the behavioral health issue. It’s not just exciting for this valley, it’s extraordinary for the nation. Nothing like this has ever happened before. It is absolutely a game-changer.”
The official announcement from Vail Health said the hospital relishes the opportunity to take on behavioral health issues — terminology that reflects both mental health and substance-abuse needs.
“It is extraordinary to see our community come together to respond to this crisis in a collaborative and bold way,” said Mike Shannon, chairman of Vail Health’s board of directors. “Our board unanimously approved the support of this initiative because of the compelling evidence of a lack of sufficient local resources for our community.”
Community members who have been active in the effort to improve local mental-health services sensed that a big announcement was forthcoming Thursday when they arrived for a special Vail Health presentation. But several participants stated they were stunned by the scope of the hospital’s plan.
Even the governor weighed in on the announcement.
“You can’t separate behavioral health from physical health,” said Gov. Jared Polis, acknowledging Eagle County as a leader in confronting the issue. “I’m proud to announce today that a collaborative group, including public and private partners, is taking a huge step forward to transform the behavioral health landscape. One of the emerging leaders is Vail Health, which just announced a $60 million commitment to address behavioral health.”
In its announcement, Vail Health noted local statistics plainly show the need for increased behavioral health services. Vail Health stated that currently, mountain towns across the West are being labeled as part of the “suicide belt” in the United States. Vail Health emergency room visits for anxiety and depression rose 360% (from 63 to 290) between 2013 and 2018. Eagle County lost 17 people to suicide in 2018, up 183% from 2016. While the $1.3 million contributed by Eagle County to support behavioral health initiatives, including funds raised from marijuana sales and excise tax, is a start, more needs to be done.
Lindley noted that a committee that included representatives from 15 different organizations and government entities has been mapping out the local behavioral health needs for the past year.
“We identified that we needed our community hospital — Vail Health — to lead this effort,” Lindley said. “We also identified the need for a champion to jumpstart the philanthropic raise. Vail Health has answered both calls. They have formed the backbone organization to lead all our behavioral health initiatives and they have set the example for other organizations, funders and benefactors to follow.”
“Providing access to behavioral health services for the entire community is one of the county’s most important priorities,” Eagle County Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney said. “This collaboration with Vail Health, along with partners across the county, will provide the critical change we need to ensure our long-term vision for a robust, sustainable behavioral health system is realized.”
Community in concert
Over the past year, community groups including Eagle County Paramedic Services, Eagle County Schools, Eagle River Youth Coalition, Hope Center, Mind Springs, Mountain Family Health, SpeakUp ReachOut, University of Colorado’s Depression Center and local police departments joined Vail Health and Eagle County to identify the community’s needs and gaps in care.
The new nonprofit, Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, will develop 24/7 access to care and crisis management for adults and adolescents, in addition to providing opportunities for tele-health and psychiatric services in multiple languages. The nonprofit plans to increase prevention outreach and ensure people can access help when they need it.
“We are dedicated to continue working with the school district, emergency medical services, law enforcement and the community at large to make sure people of all ages and backgrounds have access to the services they need for their health and well-being,” said Will Cook, president and CEO of Vail Health. “Ensuring access to behavioral health and crisis care services is the most important thing we can do to serve this community right now.”
Eagle Valley Behavioral Health will also work with community leaders to communicate and educate on behavioral health challenges. On average, 46% of Americans report not knowing where to go for behavioral health services, and over 1 million Coloradans struggle with a mental-health condition.
“Behavioral health care is vital to our community,” said Amanda Precourt, a longtime community member. “When I needed it most, I went without proper care for a year because the services in Vail were unequipped to help me.
“My story isn’t unique. So many people are hurting like I was and need help, but don’t know where to turn. Bringing organizations and initiatives from across the county together to support each other and each of us is an important and necessary first step to saving lives.”
Amazed and appreciative
Two years ago, Eagle resident Agnes Harakal vowed she would do everything she could to change the local mental-health landscape. On Thursday, she was moved to tears by Vail Health’s announcement.
“What an amazing gift. It is unbelievable,” Harakal said.
Back in 2016, Harakal approached Vail Health with a request for increased funding for behavioral health issues.
“But I never even thought of asking for this much,” Harakal said.
“This is such an amazing gift to our local families,” Harakal said. “Vail Health has given our families hope. I can’t tell you how sad it is to leave your family member two hours away so they can receive mental-health care.”
Vail Police Chief Dwight Henniger also was amazed by Vail Health’s Thursday announcement.
“We have been in need of a backbone organization to support the behavioral health issues in the valley,” Henniger said. “I am super excited to have services available for people who are in crisis.”
Henniger noted that right now, too often the only local crisis service available in the middle of the night is a young police officer, sheriff’s deputy or paramedic — emergency responders who aren’t trained to deal with someone in the midst of a behavioral health crisis.
“A jail cell or the emergency room is not the place for a person who is considering suicide or having a behavioral health crisis,” Henniger said. “We can do better and Vail Health has stepped up to make that happen.”
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