Health care advocates want to create ‘clearinghouse’ for Routt County behavioral health

Elizabeth Heckman, a peer specialist with Mind Springs Health in Steamboat Springs, talks with a patient. Local healthcare advocates Nancy Spillane and Linda Delaney want to help local organizations work better together by creating a clearinghouse for mental health.
John F. RussellSteamboat Pilot & Today

In 2021, there were 10 suicides in Routt County. That translates to 39 per 100,000 residents.

Nancy Spillane, in providing that statistic, added that, since 2000, Routt County’s rate of 20 suicides per 100,000 people each year is higher than the average across Colorado — a state that already has one of the highest rates of suicide in the country.

These tragedies were just one of several chilling behavioral health statistics Spillane shared with Routt County Commissioners on Monday, Feb. 28 — statistics she said are worse since the onset of the pandemic.

“The news was pretty grim,” Spillane said about the state of mental health care in 2020. “Now it’s even grimmer, and I don’t think that is news to anyone.”

Spillane and Linda Delaney, members of the group Healthcare Activists for Routt County, told commissioners there is a valuable stable of nonprofits and providers locally helping those in need, but they also described a lack of coordination between various entities that at times seems “superficial.”

“The collaborations, the coalitions, the partnerships — they’re good, but they’re not working well enough,” Spillane said. “We have been a part of these collaborative meetings, and what happens is they get everybody’s ideas, everyone’s on the same page and then there is little to no follow up.”

The pair of advocates said they wanted the county’s help in changing that, creating what they call a clearinghouse for behavioral health services in Routt County similar to the organization Building Hope in Summit County.

That group started in 2016 after multiple local suicides, has grown to partner with businesses, non-profits and governments there, and is now funded by a dedicated mill levy.

The clearinghouse would act as a sort of conductor for services, grant funding and all things mental health in Routt County, an effort that would hopefully avoid duplication of efforts among providers.

“We consider this to be a coordinator, not a competitor,” Delaney said.

According to Mental Health America’s 2022 rankings, Colorado is last among the 50 states and Washington, D.C. when it comes to adult mental health care. The state is also grappling with a shortage of workers, with nearly 1,100 job openings at regional mental health centers.

The 2019 Northwest Colorado Community Health Assessment identified behavioral health as one of the county’s primary needs. Delaney said she felt it would be again be a top need on the updated assessment that closed last month.

Delaney stressed that there is a lot of funding available for mental health, much of it coming to the state from the American Rescue Plan. She said state officials have indicated that on July 1 they will open up a myriad of grant opportunities that could support such an effort.

“All these funds would contribute to the solution we are proposing,” Delaney said.

The role the county would serve in the clearinghouse is a little fuzzy. Spillane and Delaney said the clearinghouse would need some sort of executive director, which they envisioned could be part of the county’s Public Health Department.

Having a connection to a government entity may also be helpful when wrangling grant opportunities, she said.

Commissioner Beth Melton said she did see a role for the county, noting that writing a check to support the effort didn’t seem unreasonable. But the county taking on the hiring of staff and accepting funding responsibility was a difficult sell.

“I think we need to be a partner,” Melton said. “I would not be able to support the county just sort of taking this on and hiring staff to do this work.”

Commissioner Tim Corrigan agreed, saying that he worried such an entity wouldn’t get the proper attention as a smaller part of the Public Health Department, which already has legally mandated services it needs to provide.

“We don’t think it should be a county operation at all,” Corrigan said, a point Commissioner Tim Redmond also agreed with. “We’re willing to provide support to an independent, freestanding nonprofit organization.”

Melton added that both the county’s public health and human services departments would be important partners, but that taking on the fiscal responsibility was more of a commitment than the county could offer.

“If I’m hearing you correctly we need to find a home, so to speak, and then we need to work out a way to partner with you in some manner,” Delaney said. “I think that works.”

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