Partners pledge to work together in new era of mental health services

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SALT LAKE CITY — Providers, health care managers, government officials and advocates on Wednesday acknowledged anxiety over the most significant shift in management of mental health services in Salt Lake County in 25 years.

But all vowed to work in the best interest of clients.

Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon said the clients will see changes in how they receive services, "but Salt Lake County and mental health providers are committed to making the transition as smooth as possible."

At a news conference Wednesday, Corroon formally announced that OptumHealth will take over management of Salt Lake County's mental health services on July 1.

Richard Elorreaga, OptumHealth's executive director for Salt Lake County operations. "Salt Lake County is the native home for hope. There is hope for you," he said.
Richard Elorreaga, OptumHealth's executive director for Salt Lake County operations. "Salt Lake County is the native home for hope. There is hope for you," he said.

Valley Mental Health had been the sole provider and manager of Salt Lake County's mental health services for nearly 25 years. VMH has served some 18,000 mental health clients a year, ranging in age from infants to senior citizens. Most clients are on Medicaid.

Last year, through a competitive bidding process, Salt Lake County selected OptumHealth to act as an administrative services organization for county mental health services. It will oversee the Medicaid program, county funded services for the uninsured and federal mental health block grants.

Valley Mental Health officials protested OptumHealth's selection, which prompted an administrative review. However, county officials stuck by the decision to award the bid to OptumHealth.

"As with any transition, we know there will be bumps in the road, and we know it has been stressful and challenging for the employees and also for our clients. We are doing our best to resolve the issues we've encountered and we know our employees are doing their best to make sure the process is as smooth as possible," Corroon said.

OptumHealth discusses contractors

Open House
Salt Lake County will host an open house to discuss the transition. Officials from the county, OptumHealth and the National Alliance on Mental Illness Utah will take part.
  • Thursday, June 9
  • 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
  • Salt Lake County Government Center, South Building
  • 2001 S. State, Room S1007-A

Richard Elorreaga, OptumHealth's executive director for Salt Lake County operations, announced two initiatives to help people experiencing mental health crises. The organization also will establish a mobile crisis response team staffed by a mental health professional to make house calls to assist individuals. OptumHealth also plans to create a crisis triage center where people experiencing a mental health crisis will receive help from mental health professionals in a supportive environment. The center will serve as an alternative to a hospital emergency room.

Elorreaga said OptumHealth's message to mental health clients is one of hope.

"Salt Lake County is the native home for hope. There is hope for you. There are specific resources to help you," Elorreaga said.

Valley Mental Health will be one of several contract providers for OptumHealth, which is the health and wellness arm of United Health Group.

Douglas Goldsmith, executive director of The Children’s Center, which in the past has been a contract provider to VMH, said the transition "had stirred anxiety in the mental health community."

However, The Children Center's interactions with OptumHealth officials have been outstanding, Goldsmith said. "A transition of this scope is a massive undertaking."

Goldsmith said all parties need to keep in mind the growing need for mental health services in the Salt Lake Valley. Referrals to The Children's Center are up 20 percent, largely due to the flagging economy disrupting families. A significant number of refugees are also seeking mental health services from the agency, which serves children from birth to age 8.

We're hopeful and we'll work together to provide positive change.

–Sherri Wittwer, NAMI Utah

Help for patients top prioritySherri Wittwer, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness Utah, said the advocacy organization will carefully monitor the transition to ensure clients receive the services they need. "We're hopeful and we'll work together to provide positive change," she said.

Clients are less concerned about who runs the public mental health system as they are about their ability to "access treatment and services they're used to receiving," Wittwer said.

Debra Falvo, chief executive officer of Valley Mental Health, said the nonprofit agency looks forward to "learning from and growing with" OptumHealth to ensure clients are well served.

"After all, that's what it's all about, serving clients," Falvo said. Valley Mental Health is close to signing contracts with OptumHealth, she said. In April, Valley Mental Health announced the layoff of 100 people, which included clinicians and administration. At the time, VMH officials said the reduction in force was imposed to help the nonprofit agency remain competitive.

OptumHealth expects to hire 30 more people to fill clinical and administrative roles, officials said.


Story written by Marjorie Cortez with contributions from Richard Piatt.

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