Mental health center taking its first steps to treat its ailing finances and services

03/04/2014 5:04 PM

03/04/2014 5:06 PM

Services at Johnson County’s financially troubled mental health center are going to be changing for the 10,000 people who seek help there every year.

After months of upheaval over everything from finances to who should run the center, a picture is beginning to emerge of the program and operational changes that officials hope will put the mental health department back on track.

Tim DeWeese, director of clinical services, and the center’s interim director, Maury Thompson, are beginning to meet with clients, their families and others whose lives have been touched by the center.

At the first such meeting last week, DeWeese told the eight people in attendance of his hopes of improving accessibility of services, pursuing more partnerships with other providers of mental health care and making the service accessible to all parts of the county. At the same time, he said, the center must meet the financial challenges and stop losing money.

Budgetary problems at the center came to light last fall, when the County Commission learned that the department had overrun its budget as well as its reserve funds, and would need close to $1 million to make payroll for the last months of the year. In the aftermath, the executive director resigned and the governing board was dissolved by the commission, which voted to act in its place. That decision is now the subject of a lawsuit by those who say the commission acted incorrectly.

The center’s administrators now must consider how to serve the community and bring in more revenue.

“I would like to see the mental health center as a gateway to service,” DeWeese said. “There is tremendous need in our community. The mental health center is only scratching the surface.”

Program changes are still very much in the formative stages. But so far, DeWeese said, officials are looking particularly hard at how clients are treated from the minute they call or walk in.

DeWeese plans for a system that would put the potential patient on an immediate track for help. That means the client would get an immediate assessment and then an appointment for either the center or another provider within the next week, he said.

That represents a change in how it has been done in the past. DeWeese said the county and other centers across the country have traditionally given clients a wait of a week to 10 days before their next appointments.

“If someone has the courage to say they need help, we need to provide them access to service that day. That’s our goal,” he said. “If they needed help in 10 days, they would have called 10 days from now.”

Having clients walk out from their first visits with appointments for their next ones requires several big changes in the way the center operates. For one thing, the center will need to have partnerships with other providers, he said. That will allow the center to actually make the appointments instead of just handing over a referral list. One such partnership in the works is with Clinical Associates of Lenexa.

The appointments also will require an upgraded computer system. That new system is already in the works and should be online in April.

The new practices should be “episodic and recovery-based,” meaning that clients shouldn’t have to remain under the center’s care as long as they have in the past, he said. Clients will be encouraged to learn the skills they need to manage their illnesses, so that the patient turnover increases to a more appropriate level, he said. But patients could return if they had trouble.

DeWeese said he is still looking into how to improve service to people who call for help after hours. Some at the meeting complained that callers were being told to go to a hospital emergency room if they felt they might harm themselves.

Center officials are also taking a look at where to offer services. The mental health department had been moving toward more specialization, with Olathe primarily for children and Shawnee for adults, he said. But since transportation is an issue for many clients, he expects to move away from that policy and offer more of a mix at each location.

Much of the center’s financial problems were blamed on the loss of employees such as case workers, who could generate fees from insurers. Thompson, the interim director, said there are no immediate plans for refilling those lost positions, but he does not plan to leave any more such vacancies unfilled, should they occur.

Meanwhile, budget problems persist. County Manager Hannes Zacharias told the commission at a recent work session that “we’re not out of the woods yet for 2014. We may need assistance.” The center has a $28.4 million budget for 2014, with revenue coming from fees, state and federal grants, and county funds.

However, Thompson said at the same meeting that it’s conceivable the department could be back in the black in 2015.

DeWeese, when asked about the budget, said he was optimistic that changes could put the center back on track.

“Honestly, we’re not in good shape. If we were any other business, we probably wouldn’t be in business,” he said. “We’re moving in a positive direction. If we continue to build on that, we’re going to be in a good place. I feel pretty good about where we are right now, given what’s happened and the fact we were broke.”

Another client forum is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. April 30 at the Mission office, 6000 Lamar Ave.

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