Our Voice: Mental health overhaul needs bicounty approach

Efforts to privatize mental health care by one Benton County commissioner will need broad community support if the idea is to gain any traction.

That’s why it is encouraging that Benton and Franklin county commissioners are already discussing the plan. Commissioners from both sides of the river talked via conference call on Friday, which is a wise start to what could be a huge transition in how mental health services are provided in the community.

Both sides agreed to continue studying the issue, which makes sense for now. The key is that the two counties are working together. Providing mental health services to the community can’t be handled with a scattered, patchy approach.

Benton County Commissioner Shon Small is instigating the potential change, believing privatization would be more efficient and cost effective than continuing the current model that relies on the Crisis Response Unit in Kennewick.

Crisis Response is a bicounty agency that specializes in providing the initial intervention when someone is having a mental health emergency. After the crisis is over, clients are frequently referred to other providers for long-term treatment and care.

Small’s vision is to streamline services and provide a “one-stop-shop” that would allow the same agency to provide the crisis intervention as well as the long-term treatment plan, placing clients in the system right away.

It is definitely an idea worth researching, although it would mean eliminating the Crisis Response Unit, which many people may find hard to accept.

Crisis Response operates as part of the Benton-Franklin Human Services Department and had more than 18,500 contacts and calls for service in 2014. There are concerns whether mental health care truly would improve under a private organization. Great care would have to be taken to ensure no mental health patient suffers any extra anxiety during the transition.

And then, of course, there is concern for those who might lose their jobs, especially long-term staff with years of experience in the community.

Small already has identified Lourdes Health Network in Pasco as a likely candidate to take over, since most of the clients from Crisis Response end up at Lourdes anyway. However, the county probably would consider other proposals as well, he said.

Small says It is probable some employees from the Crisis Response Unit could end up working for the private firm.

He also said if a private agency took over, it could reduce the county’s liability and free up an estimated half-million dollars that could be put back into other mental health care programs.

So far, Small appears to be the lone cheerleader for the proposal. Others involved seem to be waiting for more information before they become enthusiastic supporters of a major overhaul of the community’s mental health care system.

This is not something that can be decided on one side of the river. Mental health emergencies happen all over the Tri-Cities and a combined approach is the best way to provide care and supervision throughout the region.

Benton and Franklin counties must work on this plan together or not at all.