Commission approves increased staffing for Johnson County Mental Health as demand for services continues to grow

Roxie Hammill - September 17, 2018 11:50 am
Johnson County Mental Health Center Director Tim DeWeese.

An increase in state funding this year may mean increased services or shorter wait times for people who use the Johnson County Mental Health Centers.

The Johnson County Commission increased staffing of four positions Thursday in an effort to keep up with rising demand. The county will add two full-time-equivalent positions for open access clinicians and one full-time dispatcher. Two other positions – vocational case manager and mental health clinician, will go from full- to part-time.

The staffing increase comes as demand has been on the rise, said Tanner Fortney, the department’s director of operations. For example, walk-ins to the mental health offices increased by about 10 percent from 2016-17, and they’re projected to continue to go up by an additional 4 percent this year, he said. Last year 6,128 people, some of whom were in crisis, walked in without appointments.

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The two open access clinicians will address that. Last year wait times averaged 80 minutes for walk-in mental health appointments, and a lot of patients walked out before they could be seen, Fortney said. The mental health center reassigned some staff to see walk-ins during peak hours, getting the wait time down to 55 minutes, but it’s still short of the 30-minute goal. The wait time could go back up again without the additional staffing.

Likewise the number of rides to work, school and medical appointments provided through the mental health department has grown steadily since the rides program was started in the 1990s, hence the new dispatcher position.

The vocational case manager, who helps clients find work, would become a full-time position and another clinician position will become full time to support assisted outpatient treatment. That service brings outpatient treatment under court orders to people with severe forms of mental illness who meet strict legal criteria. They are typically a tiny percentage of the county’s patients, but are most at risk for being jailed, homeless or in need of emergency treatment, according to county documents.

The commission gave its okay to add $328,000 in spending for 2019 to fund those positions, plus a smaller amount for the end of the current budget year. The jobs will not add to the county tax bill because they are paid through an increase in state funding of $380,000 for 2018-19.

State funding for county mental health programs has increased the past couple of years, as the county mental health department is beginning to return to financial health after a crisis five years ago. Reserves, which had been dwindling, are back within a healthy range, Forney said.

But there’s still work to be done, said Tim DeWeese, mental health director. The state increased the county’s mental health funding by $300,000 the past two years and may do so again in 2019. But all that would just bring the funding up to the 2006 level, he said.

Commissioners said they are happy the state is increasing its aid to county mental health programs, but cautioned that the recent increases are only just beginning to ease the problems. Commissioner Jason Osterhaus said the state needs to continue to step up.

“We are looking to the state to keep up and help us with that,” he said.

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