Three counties consolidate mental health programs

State cuts spur action by Clark, Cowlitz, Skamania officials

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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Prompted by state cuts for mental health services, Clark County commissioners on Tuesday worked with Cowlitz and Skamania counties to form the Southwest Washington Behavioral Health Regional Support Network.

If all goes forward as planned, the new network will be in effect Oct. 1. The Clark County Regional Support Network and Cowlitz County Regional Support Network will cease to exist. Skamania County does not have its own regional support network, which means residents sometimes have to go to Yakima or Spokane for services.

Mental health service providers such as Columbia River Mental Health, Lifeline and Community Services NW will keep their contracts, and there will be a need for expansion of services, said Vanessa Gaston, director of Clark County Community Services.

The approximately 40 employees who work for the current regional support networks in Clark and Cowlitz counties will be asked to apply for jobs with the new network, Gaston said.

Clark County Administrator Bill Barron said he doesn't expect any current county employees will be out of a job.

Salary and benefits packages haven't been decided, but Gaston said there will be a comparison with what employees earn in Clark and Cowlitz counties and what people earn for comparable jobs in the private sector. As the new network will be a quasi-governmental agency, there's a chance employees who have been paying into the Public Employees Retirement System will be able to stay on the PERS plan, Gaston said, but no decisions have been made.

The consolidation will save on administrative costs. Instead of multiple administrators, clinical directors and compliance monitors, who ensure Medicaid dollars are being spent properly, the new regional support network will have one of each.

It will rent space at the Clark County Center for Community Health on Fourth Plain Boulevard, where county employees who administer the current network already work.

The move comes after the state agreed to give counties the opportunity to best figure out how to reconfigure from 13 regional support networks to six.

The Department of Social and Health Services contracts with the networks to oversee delivery of mental health services for low-income adults and children.

Funding sources

The new network will have an annual budget of approximately $50 million, said Gaston. Most of that money comes from Medicaid, with other sources being the state's general fund, mental health block grants and local funding.

Gaston said approximately 70,000 adults and children in Clark County, the most populous of the three counties, are eligible for services.

The new network's governing board will have two members from each county, but the votes will be weighted to ensure proportionate representation. Clark County, however, will have to have buy-in from at least one of the smaller counties. Some circumstances, including the appointment of the network administrator, will require a unanimous vote.

All three county commissioners praised the new network as a more effective, efficient way to deliver services, and a handful of people who testified during public comment praised it, as well. A psychiatric nurse practitioner who works at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center said it's not uncommon for Skamania County residents to show up. But under the state's current configuration, it's difficult to get their care authorized.

Likewise, Cowlitz County residents may currently have to go to Seattle for care they will now be able to receive in Vancouver.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.