New era for Summit County mental health care begins as officials agree to deal with provider
Patients who receive mental health services through Summit County have to wait four or even six months for an appointment with a clinician who is certified to prescribe or manage medications.
But starting Sept. 1, the wait time could fall dramatically as the county’s new behavioral health contract takes effect.
That’s only one metric the Summit County Health Department expects to improve under the new provider setup, said Aaron Newman, Summit County behavioral health director. The number of care managers will more than double, the number of clinicians will more than triple – including Spanish-speaking providers – and, for the first time, all 19 schools in Summit County will be covered by a therapist.
The Summit County Council Wednesday unanimously approved a five-year, $4.2 million contract with University of Utah Health Plans to provide behavioral health services to the county’s Medicaid recipients and patients without insurance.
The sum includes $1.6 million in federal Medicaid match funds, $2.1 million in state funds and $434,000 in county money. A new branch of University of Utah Health Plans called Healthy U Behavioral will administer the program.
The county has seen a renewed focus on mental health in recent years, and officials said the new system could revolutionize how Summit County residents seek that kind of health care.
After a rare round of applause following the approval, County Council chair Roger Armstrong, a key player in the contract negotiations, congratulated the participants and thanked the university for their collaborative approach.
“What I’m most excited about working with the U. is you’ve been excited about it,” Armstrong said. “Every time we got something good, you’re excited about rolling it out and forming new relationships.”
Health Department Director Rich Bullough said the new phase of behavioral health services represents a paradigm shift.
“The residents of the county are going to see a difference relatively soon,” Bullough said. “I think there will be a day, honestly, there will be an entirely different presence and an entirely different conversation around behavioral health.”
Behavioral health is a term that encompasses both mental health and substance abuse issues, and the county is mandated by state law to provide a detailed list of services to Medicaid recipients and those without insurance, Newman said.
But a key organizational change means the impacts of the new model may impact many more than just those patients.
Since 1996, the county has contracted with Valley Behavioral Health to provide behavioral health services. The current deal was signed in 2003 and expires Aug. 31.
Under the new deal, providers will no longer be directly employed by the contract holder, as they had been with Valley Behavioral Health, Newman said. Instead, they will continue to operate in their own offices in many cases, and the Medicaid and uninsured patients covered by the contract will only be a portion of the patients they help.
The vision is for a central portal – a phone number or website – that any resident can use to receive a referral to a behavioral health provider, regardless of insurance status.
When Newman was hired in 2017, he said, he conducted due diligence to see if the arrangement suited the needs of the county. In January of 2019, the county sent out a request for proposals from providers, receiving five responses from all over the country. Valley Behavioral Health was included as a provider in one of the proposals.
Bullough stressed the change is not a reflection on Valley Behavioral Health’s clinicians. Many of them have been hired to work for the new program, he noted.
Tracy Altman, the senior Medicaid program manager for University of Utah Health Plans, told the County Council Wednesday Healthy U Behavioral had hired many of the therapists who worked for Valley Behavioral Health and the advanced practice registered nurse who is empowered to manage medications. It is also set to open a clinic on Sept. 1 at 1820 Sidewinder Drive.
Altman said the goal is a smooth transition.
“We’re working with Drug Court and some of those justice services,” Altman said. “We wanted to … provide the providers known to the community and expand that as much as possible.”
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