Unclear future for state’s key mental health initiative

By Kristin Jones

I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS

Tom Sullivan knows the value of getting treatment for mental health problems. His son Alex was killed in the Aurora theater massacre in 2012, the victim of a man who seemed to think he was the Joker in a Batman movie.

James Holmes’ sanity is a key question in his prosecution. But the shooting led Gov.John Hickenlooper to lay plans for 24-hour crisis centers meant to catch untreated mental illness and maybe avert the next mass shooting.

Gov. John HIckenlooper announces his plan for increasing mental health funding.

Gov. John HIckenlooper announces his plan for increasing mental health funding.

Gov. John HIckenlooper announces his plan for increasing mental health funding.

For Sullivan and the other survivors and family members affected by the Aurora shooting, though, mental health services fill a more immediate need. They provide support for surviving trauma.

“The people that did survive, but weren’t physically hurt, are having all kinds of problems. There have been drug problems, alcohol problems. Families have been torn apart,” says Sullivan, who says his family has benefited from the trauma-recovery groups convened by Aurora Mental Health Center. “Day to day, our lives are pretty complex, and when those types of things get added on top of it, it makes it all a little bit harder.”

But the $18.5 million set aside for Hickenlooper’s major mental health initiative won’t be spent.

Not this year at least, and the prospects for next year’s budget look uncertain, too.

For now, the crisis centers are on hold. The contract to run the new crisis system has been mired in a lawsuit lodged against the state by Crisis Access of Colorado, a company that was given the award to run the centers in October, only to have it rescinded a few weeks later.

Denver District Court Judge Herbert L. Stern late last month ordered the state to call off, temporarily at least, its second bid process while the lawsuit is resolved. In his order, the judge was critical of the state’s decision to cancel the initial award to Crisis Access.

“The public is served by having a state procurement process and government that behaves openly, honestly, transparently and with integrity,” Stern wrote, citing “clear evidence suggesting that the state has behaved otherwise in cancelling the solicitation.”

Susan Beckman

Susan Beckman

Neither Crisis Access nor the Department of Human Services, the state agency responsible for administering the contracts, would comment for this story. Both cited the litigation. But Crisis Access has previously accused the state of bowing to political pressure from Colorado-based mental health providers who lost out on the contract.

The company, which formed for the purposes of running the crisis centers in Colorado, is affiliated with crisis intervention and mental health treatment programs in Arizona, Georgia and other states.

The state, meanwhile, has maintained that the first go-round of the procurement process was in disarray, riddled with math errors and incomplete responses. Susan Beckman, who runs the administrative branch of Colorado Department of Human Services, has called the process “an embarrassment to the department.”

The judge disagreed, saying the department could have done more to correct any errors. Stern noted that CDHS Controller Clint Woodruff didn’t contact the members of the evaluation committee before canceling the award.

One member of that committee, retired social worker Deborah Amesbury, said she was offended at the state’s suggestion that Crisis Access was poorly chosen. The company had impressed her with its cutting edge approach to treating trauma, in part by involving people with mental illness in their own processes of recovery.

“I felt that those services proposed by Crisis Access Colorado were new and innovative and would move the system in a way that is not currently happening in Colorado,” said Amesbury.

Jennifer Hill, a mental health advocate with personal experience on the receiving end of the behavioral health treatment system in the state, said she was thrilled with the judge’s decision – despite the delays.

“You can build all the crisis stabilization centers that you want, but if you keep doing it the same way that you’re doing it now, people still aren’t going to access services,” says Hill, who is critical of what she sees as the Colorado system’s dehumanizing focus on security.

Hill, who has been diagnosed with a dissociative identity disorder, tells of being strapped to a bed, deprived of her clothes, and isolated from her friends and support system when she sought treatment.

“What we need to do is not only bring more resources,” says Hill. “We have to change how we approach people in crisis.”

As the lawsuit winds on, the way forward remains unclear.

“It’s really sad for the folks in Colorado that the dollars that the governor and legislature were hopeful to spend won’t be spent,” says Harriet Hall, who heads the Jefferson Center for Mental Health in Wheat Ridge, part of the consortium of Colorado mental health centers that has applied — twice now — for the crisis centers contract.

The latest judge’s decision leaves open the possibility that these local mental health centers, as well as the state, will have to work with Crisis Access in making the crisis system a success once the suit is resolved.

“We’re all of us trying to figure out where this is going,” says Hall.

I-News is the public service journalism arm of Rocky Mountain PBS. To read more please go to inewsnetwork.org. Contact Kristin Jones at [email protected].



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