Mental Health Board looks to tackle crisis

See video from Wednesday night's meeting

CRYSTAL LAKE – At its first emergency meeting since one of the county’s largest and oldest behavioral health agencies announced its collapse, the McHenry County Mental Health Board discussed options for clients of Family Service and Community Mental Health Center.

The board at a public hearing Wednesday night heard impassioned pleas from Family Service clients, employees and other mental health care providers. There were at least 150 people at the meeting, many telling their experiences with Family Service. Others pleaded not to be forgotten.

“We want to be your voice, that is so important,” the Rev. Jim Swarthout, a Mental Health Board member, told one client. “We will be your voice, we will be your face. I promise you that.”

The Mental Health Board has ideas to fill service gaps in the wake of Family Service’s closure. But with the announcement only late last week that North Central Behavioral Health System would pull out of a service agreement with Family Service, the board was short on specifics.

Members have identified providers that potentially can pick up the services in Family Service’s absence, including Pioneer Center, Youth Services Bureau, Family Alliance, National Alliance on Mental Illness, Thresholds and others.

And the overwhelming response from these social services agencies was: We’re up for the challenge.

“We’re poised and ready to provide services to transition individuals’ care, knowing the time is now to collaborate and strengthen relations to meet this situation and avoid crisis,” Pioneer President and CEO Patrick Maynard wrote in a statement.

While they appear ready to take on larger case loads, additional clients could further financially strain the agencies.

“I’ve been very frank with the providers, asking them how fast can they build capacity without putting themselves in a position of further instability,” Mental Health Board Executive Director Sandy Lewis said. “The last thing we need is another agency in a situation where they need cash-flow assistance or see themselves [with] cash-flow issues.”

Referring clients to other providers is likely to cause confusion, delays in treatment and additional demand on already overextended agencies. Of particular concern is the expected demand by crisis patients.

Nearly half of Family Service clients are covered by Medicaid, and there are limited certified Medicaid providers in the county. While other agencies are eligible to apply to be a Medicaid provider, many are not likely to do so.

“Probably the most difficult plan for a seamless transition is all the outpatient services,” Lewis said. The majority of Family Service clients are on Medicaid “and therefore not our financial responsibility. That falls on the state of Illinois,” he said.

The financial partnership with LaSalle-based North Central would have kept Family Service’s doors open.

There were oral, good-faith assurances that state contracts normally provided to Family Service would go to North Central. But Family Service was told early last week that those contracts – $800,000 for psychiatry and $277,000 for alcohol and substance – would not materialize.

Family Service at its peak serves 6,000 clients. There were 2,000 clients seen in the past 90 days.

“This is a tragedy of untold proportion,” said audience member Dick Peterson. “Not only for the 6,000 people served by Family Service, but the crippling effect it will have on every corner in McHenry County.”

The Mental Health Board is one of the largest financial backers of Family Service. The Board agreed to the terms of the service agreement with North Central, which was contingent upon all state contracts being realized.

Since North Central absorbed Family Service on May 1, the Mental Health Board has given that agency $400,000 for May and June, Lewis said.

The Mental Health Board is taxpayer funded.

Family Service will continue to operate and see clients through June 30. When the doors close, 57 Family Service employees will be laid off, and its 36,000-square-foot Veterans Parkway building will be vacated. The Family Service board intends to sell the building, and has a meeting next week with its mortgage holder.

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