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HHS considers privatizing mental health services

Goodhue County is looking into options for its Mental Health Center, including the possibility of privatizing its operation as early as next year.

A Health and Human Services Board study committee presented the pros and cons of privatization at a meeting Aug. 6. Members agreed the most favorable option is for the county to continue operating its Community Support Program while requesting proposals from local providers interested in taking over mental health services.

Privatization could mean greater access to services for county residents and increased productivity, HHS Board member Gary Iocco said.

It also would eliminate seven jobs and cut approximately $700,000 in taxpayer spending each year.

Iocco said he regretted the loss of staff, but stressed the primary goal of privatization is to expand services to more county residents, not to save money.

Although Mental Health Center staff have met productivity standards set by the county, they lag behind mental health workers in the private sector, Iocco said. "There is room for improvement."

HHS Board member and County Commissioner Dan Rechtzigel added that the center's location in downtown Red Wing also means a disproportionate number of city residents are using its services compared to the rest of the county.

"It's definitely skewed," he said. "The further southwest you get, the numbers shrink pretty significantly."

Other options discussed were privatizing both the Mental Health Center and Community Support Program, or keeping the current model with a few internal reforms.

Rechtzigel suggested the county continue to operate its Community Support Program because it works closely with other county departments and may not be attractive to private mental health providers.

The Community Support Program offers one-on-one help to adults living with persistent mental illness.

Because of state grants, the program pays for itself, Rechtzigel added.

More research needed

The study committee issued a request for information to 32 local and regional mental health providers in June, HHS Director Nina Arneson said.

Out of eight organizations that replied, the study committee identified two providers that have the interest and capacity to provide mental health services in Goodhue County.

Both providers have offices in nearby counties and know the area well, Iocco said.

Goodhue is one of only seven Minnesota counties that runs its own community mental health center.

Starting in the 1970s, the county purchased mental health services through Zumbro Valley Mental Health Center, a nonprofit provider from Rochester. But growing funding and service challenges prompted commissioners to set up the county's health center in 1999.

The Mental Health Center serves approximately 1,200 county residents each year, who struggle with a range of conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder and drug addiction. Many of them are uninsured or have low income.

Before deciding to return mental health services to a private contractor, HHS Board members agreed to review the options outlined by the study committee over the next two weeks.

HHS board could then potentially decide to draft a request for proposal at a meeting Aug. 20, which could be issued sometime in September.

Board members further agreed not to rush in the process, especially considering the vulnerability of the residents who use the county's mental health services.

"I think that time is on our side," HHS Board member and County Commissioner Jim Bryant said. "Sometimes you have to just slow down and get the best information and the best product out of that."

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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