Last Sunday, The News Tribune presented a very critical view of OptumHealth Pierce RSN, headlined “Mental health provider scrutinized.”
As the president and CEO of a mental health agency, and as a mental health professional with more than 30 years public mental health experience in Pierce County, I have a different perspective.
I am very familiar with the difficulties Pierce County experienced when it operated the mental health Regional Support Network (RSN). Before the county gave up its contract, an industry expert hired to assess the situation described the scenario at that time as leading to an inevitable “death spiral” of the entire public mental health system in Pierce County.
This wasn’t a comment on the degree of compassion of the county-run RSN or its motivations to do well by people with mental illness; it was a stark view of the reality of where our system was going, if none of the variables changed.
After the county gave up the contract due to inadequate funding, the state selected Optum in full recognition that major changes would be needed to avoid the death-spiral dynamic that the old RSN had struggled with and ultimately ceded to.
The article referenced “statistical sleight-of-hand” in Optum’s assertion that it has increased the number of people seen by more than 26 percent. While I cannot vouch for the numbers of the entire county, I can state categorically that under Optum’s leadership, we are providing significantly more services to more consumers than ever before, far in excess of 26 percent growth.
Most of this growth in service was prompted by Optum’s business model of aligning funding with the goals of increasing the number of clients served, as well as improving quality of care. For the first time, Optum brought geo-mapping to our system, identifying areas where our services were not accessible to those who needed them.
The article seems to paint Optum as an evil, out-of-state, for-profit company. This has not been our experience.
We have found that Optum consistently promotes and rewards high quality and excellent customer service, fully integrating these values into every aspect of its management of public mental health dollars.
Optum combines an unusual degree of business sophistication with its values that people with mental illness must be involved in their own care and must be treated with compassion and respect.
It brings the absolute certainty that every person with a mental illness deserves to be considered capable of recovery. Only with this mindset will we as a treatment community bring everything we have to each person we serve. People with mental illness deserve no less.
As we compare our struggles in Pierce County with other counties in Washington, we find that we are no different.
Across this state (and across our nation), communities are struggling with their jails being filled with people with mental illness and a lack of psychiatric beds for those whose illness is too severe to be in the community.
Managing public mental health systems has always been challenging – so challenging that Pierce County government no longer wanted to do it.
Optum is doing its job in an underfunded system and has made tremendous strides in extending services to more consumers while also implementing more evidenced-based practices. We are proud to be a partner in its efforts.