Task force's mental health review begins

WOODSTOCK – A task force could spend up to a year looking for ways to help strengthen the safety net for people with mental health problems.

Or at least to come up with ways to prevent more social service agencies from collapsing, as Family Service and Community Mental Health Center did in June.

The Community Behavioral Health Safety Net Task Force met for the first time Thursday. Made up of members of the County Board, Mental Health Board, law enforcement, health care and community groups, it plans to investigate the impact of Family Service’s closure, the condition of the safety net, and make recommendations next year to improve it.

Mental Health Board Vice President Lee Ellis stated that the task force’s role is strictly advisory to assuage concerns voiced by providers about its intended reach.

“We need to start working together collaboratively to see how to strengthen these agencies together, and make sure the people are still served,” Ellis said.

Family Service closed June 30 because of financial issues. The 50-year-old agency said it had served about 6,000 clients a year with mental health issues. It had hoped to stay open through merging with North Central Behavioral Health Systems, but the deal fell through in May.

Contributing to Family Service’s closure was the fact that the state owed it more than $850,000 in back payments. Chronically late state payments are an issue with many not-for-profit service providers, and part of the task force’s mission will be to gauge their preparedness for tough financial times, County Administrator Peter Austin said.

“Are providers ready for this difficult road that’s coming ahead?” Austin said.

About half of the agencies responding to the mental health board said they are projecting having less than 30 days cash reserve at the end of the county fiscal year Nov. 30, board Executive Director Sandy Lewis said.

The task force likely will try to quantify the impact of the loss of Family Service, and the health of the safety net, by tracking over the next year statistics such as suicides, calls to the crisis line, inmates with mental health or substance abuse issues, and the number of homeless people in temporary housing programs.

Officials with the McHenry County Crisis Program have said that call volume has significantly increased since Family Service’s closing, but that it is too early to tell whether the two are related.

State shortfalls are nothing new, nor are efforts to address them, Sue Krause told the task force. Krause, executive director for Pioneer Center for Human Services, said social service agencies banded together in 2009 to form Human Service Advocates of McHenry County in order to keep pressure on lawmakers to support mental health funding and fight cuts.

Krause encouraged the task force to be considerate and not add to the administrative burden that agencies already are shouldering.

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