Two major players in the launch of the long-awaited Treatment and Recovery Center of Douglas County expressed concerns Monday about the county’s interest in contracting with a for-profit management company to oversee the center.
Russ Johnson, president and CEO of LMH Health, said LMH learned in September the county had considered discontinuing its relationship with Behavioral Health Partners Inc. – a nonprofit partnership between LMH Health and Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center. BHP provides operational management and clinical oversight of the TRC and is led by a nine-member board.
Johnson said the county had “identified Connections – an out-of-state, for-profit management organization owned by a private equity firm – to oversee the TRC instead.”
“We have been deeply concerned about this plan, as it is a significant departure from the collaboration in place for over two years,” Johnson said in an email. “It was especially disappointing to see this at a time when we have been devoting significant resources to ensuring we are prepared to execute on our promise to the residents of this county — including our readiness to open the facility as planned.”
In an email to Bert Nash employees Monday afternoon, CEO Patrick Schmitz told staff Douglas County had indicated on Sept. 1 it intended to contract with Connections.
“The BHP Board and leadership, as well as LMH and BNC team members, worked exhaustedly to address the concerns communicated by county personnel during the preceding weeks and proposed a large number of concessions, compromises and alternatives to the Connections recommendation,” Schmitz wrote. “It has been our hope to have a collaborative approach to resolving this matter without going public about the county’s recommendation of bringing in an outside, for-profit organization.”
In response to questions about the reports on Monday, County Administrator Sarah Plinsky emphasized no action had been taken and “discussions are ongoing” but confirmed the possibility of changing oversight for the TRC, though still in collaboration with local community partners.
Plinsky said in an email the county “has repeatedly informed BHP leadership of concerns about BHP’s readiness to open the center, including in February, July, August, and September 2022.”
County administration believes additional resources will be necessary for the center to meet its goal of opening and operating successfully, Plinsky wrote.
“If Connections is engaged to manage the TRC, we expect that Bert Nash will be an important partner in providing services at the center,” Plinsky said. “We also expect that Connections would continue to work closely with other community partners, such as LMH Health, DCCCA, Heartland RADAC, Heartland Community Health Center, and others.”
Plinsky acknowledged 2021 reports that Connections Health Solutions had received growth funding from Heritage Group, a health care-focused private equity firm. A news release said Heritage Group had helped Connections Health Solutions raise $30 million to help “fuel national expansion of Connections Health Solutions’ leading behavioral health crisis services model.”
During Wednesday’s County Commission meeting, commissioners received an update about the TRC, which hosted its ribbon-cutting celebration June 23. As part of the recovery campus, the $10.6 million facility was designed to provide all-ages access to medical and behavioral health treatment during crises involving serious mental illness, substance use disorders and addiction; however, its opening has hit some roadblocks, including obtaining the center’s license.
And although behavioral health leaders announced a provisional license had been issued, the date the center would open its doors to patients, however, was not announced.
Plinsky told commissioners during the meeting Connections Health Solutions was one of the first organizations Douglas County reached out to after voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax in November 2018 to help fund a recovery campus.
Connections operates two behavioral health centers in Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona. County leaders and behavioral health representatives from Douglas County have traveled to the Phoenix location, Plinsky said.
“We formally began a relationship with them in March of 2019,” Plinsky said. “They’ve really served as consultants and mentors to this entire system throughout this entire process.”
Dr. Chris Carson, co-founder and chief medical officer for Connections Health Solutions, attended the commission meeting. He commended the county as “forward moving” and ahead of many communities across the country in launching crisis care systems, despite the setbacks.
“The process, as complicated and as difficult as it has been, has outstripped and outrun, regulation, licensure, payers,” Carson said. “And yet it is a model of collaboration between the providers in this community, Bert Nash, LMH, the county, the state, I mean, it has really been a journey.”
Johnson’s email Monday said LMH Health “had hoped to avoid a public debate” and the introduction of a private equity firm would likely result in patients being referred outside the community for care.
“Competition of this nature means that our local non-profit healthcare providers will have less opportunity to fund the millions of dollars of charitable care needed in our community each year,” Johnson wrote.
Plinsky called Connections Health Solutions “a nationally-recognized expert in providing emergency psychiatric care in crisis intervention centers.”
“The County sought out Connections to assist with the development of the TRC because Connections and its physicians have been on the cutting edge of behavioral health and substance use crisis management and we did not have that level of expertise locally,” Plinsky said.