Delays to implementing mental health initiative 'an embarrassment'

By Kristin Jones

I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS

Susan Beckman wants you to know that “a lot of sloppy work” – and not a conspiracy – were behind the state’s botched job of finding someone to run a network of walk-in mental health crisis centers.

Beckman heads the administrative branch of the Colorado Department of Human Services, the office responsible for the failed solicitation process. The department has been accused of colluding with local actors – that is, local providers of mental health services – to elbow out a newcomer, but Beckman says a slew of mistakes were just human error.


Susan Beckman

The department issued a new request for proposals to run the crisis centers on Nov. 22, three weeks after deciding to rescind an award it had made on Oct. 16 to Crisis Access of Colorado, which set up shop in the state for the purpose of applying for the contract.

Crisis Access is affiliated with a private Georgia-based crisis intervention company called Behavioral Health Link and Recovery Innovations, an organization with operations in Arizona, California and Washington.

Awards made to Denver-based companies Metro Crisis Services to run a hotline and Cactus Communications for marketing were also scuttled.

The contracts will determine who runs the keystone mental health initiative of the Hickenlooper administration. The crisis stabilization centers are meant to take pressure off of hospital emergency rooms, jails and prisons, which have become the main providers of services for people with mental illness after decades of funding shortfalls.

But so far, the piece of legislation meant to promote unity and cooperation among mental health service providers in Colorado has proven divisive, at best.

Crisis Access has accused the state of making a political decision when it scrapped the contract. In a protest letter filed with the Department of Human Services on Nov. 11, the company called the decision unlawful, and alleged that the state skirted proper procedures and bowed to pressure from a consortium of local community mental health facilities that had lost out on the bid.

“If there were concerns about the process, then the state should have required the regular protest procedures,” says David Covington, who left a job at Magellan Health Services to become CEO of Crisis Access. “That wasn’t done.”

The state rejected Crisis Access’ protest last week.

Beckman says the decision to scrap the award had nothing to do with pressure from the losing bidders. Instead, she blames plain old sloppiness for a bidding process that was “an embarrassment to the department.”

Before the bid was even awarded, says Beckman, she became aware of “blatant” errors including missing scores, incorrect calculations and improper weighting.

“We were wondering how we had gotten this far without checking our work,” says Beckman, adding that in retrospect, the award should never have been publicly announced. “It was just such bad timing. It was awkward. It was not good.”

Her division instead referred the matter to the Colorado Department of Personnel and Administration. That office found that the bid process was not only stocked with errors, says Beckman, but didn’t meet the requirements of the legislation creating the new behavioral health crisis system, including principles of cultural competence, strong community relationships and building on existing foundations.

Harriet Hall was among those who were unhappy with the way the bid went the first time. She heads the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, and is part of a group of local partners who got together to apply to run the crisis centers.

“Our sense of the competing bid was that those strong community relationships were non-existent,” Hall says. “And yet if you looked at the scoring they were scored as high or higher as folks that have the community relationships.”

But Covington says there was no requirement that the bidders have a history of operating in the state. Reviewers were impressed with Crisis Access’ focus on peer support and trauma-informed care, records show.

If there’s any consensus, it’s that the state’s mistakes will be expensive to fix. A new bidding process means another costly effort by the mental health service providers applying for the job – not to mention those reviewing the proposals.

Beckman says the disruption is worth it in order to re-do the bid process with a fresh crew and a clean slate.

“When we’re done, everyone’s going to say, this is a really good process,” says Beckman.

The state hopes to finalize the new contracts by Feb. 24 – four months later than planned.

I-News is the public service journalism arm of Rocky Mountain PBS and works collaboratively with news media across Colorado. To read more, please go to Kristin Jones can be reached at [email protected].

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