Mentally ill people may suffer at the hands of Spokane County commissioners intent on slashing spending, mental health officials warn.
Commissioners are considering dropping Spokane Community Mental Health Center as the county’s lead mental health service provider and opening the system to other agencies.
Services haven’t been open to competitive bidding since 1968, when all state money for outpatient mental health care began going to the center.
More mentally ill people would “slip through the cracks” without a lead agency guiding them to the proper resources, said David Panken, chief executive officer at Spokane Community Mental Health.
The center has the outspoken support of at least one commissioner - George Marlton.
“I’m going to fight like hell to keep it like it is,” Marlton said. “I’m going to go down with guns blazing.”
And that’s not because he occasionally dates a psychiatrist who works at the mental health center, Marlton said.
“These people are the most vulnerable,” Marlton said, referring to people with mental illnesses. “I just don’t like playing politics with people who aren’t able to defend themselves.”
Commissioner Steve Hasson, however, is demanding a new system.
“I appreciate the good work the Community Mental Health Center does, but it’s got to be an open and competitive process,” Hasson said.
“We just can’t do business the way we have in the past. They provide a quality product if they know someone’s looking over their shoulder.”
The county’s system for distributing money is unusual, said Carol Hernandez, director of the state mental health division.
“Spokane’s probably unique in terms of having one lead agency,” she said. “Most contract with a number of providers.”
Community Mental Health Center is a private, non-profit organization. It employs about 450 people and has an annual budget of about $17 million, most of which is state and federal money.
About $12 million of that budget passes through the county, which determines which agency gets it.
Some of the money actually goes to other organizations, because the mental health center has subcontracts and agreements with more than 200 organizations, said Panken.
“This is very much a public-private venture,” he said. “If this is broken up, more (mentally ill) people will be on the streets.”
Most services are geared to “under-served” people, such as children, minorities and the elderly, Panken said.
The Gatekeepers program, for instance, trains people such as meter readers and mail carriers to watch for signs of elderly residents in trouble. The program received national praise for innovation.
The center provides a myriad of other services, such as a 24-hour crisis hot line, individual and group therapy, and preventive and treatment programs for child abuse.
Among its contracts are two alternative school programs with District 81. The mental health center also works with Eastern State Hospital and Sacred Heart Medical Center to provide a psychiatric residency program.
, DataTimes MEMO: Hearing A public hearing to discuss mental health care funding is scheduled for 4 p.m. Thursday before the Spokane County Mental Health Board.
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