Johnson County may drop private contractor providing mental health treatment at jail, add own staff instead

Tim DeWeese, director of the Johnson County Mental Health Center.

In an effort to improve treatment and reduce jail time for the mentally ill, Johnson County is preparing to drop its private contractor and use its own staff to treat inmates.

County commissioners will decide this week whether to eventually add 12.5 full-time equivalent staff to provide clinical and case management services to care for inmates. Replacing the private contractor with the county staff would provide better outcomes and potentially get the inmates out of custody and into treatment sooner, said Mental Health Director Tim DeWeese.

The county has used Wellpath for the past seven or eight years to provide those services, he said, but there have been concerns from county staff and families about the timeliness and effectiveness of the treatment, he said.

Medication has often been slow in coming, and even then the company doesn’t always get the inmates the same medicines they had been taking before being arrested, he said. “It could be a week before someone gets the medicines prescribed and that’s not acceptable,” he said.

The county has an interest because the jail population is growing and people with mental illness on average spend much longer in custody than the general population, he said. While the average length of stay for the total population is about three days, DeWeese said people flagged with mental health problems spend closer to 81 days in jail.

Lack of medication can compound their problems because they may end up getting additional charges while in jail for being unable to control themselves. Also, people with major mental illnesses are often too poor to be able to post bond, he said.

The Wellpath contract expires at the end of this year. When that happens, the county will have $1.5 million to spend on staffing. However the details on costs and exactly what positions may be added are still being worked out. The mental health department would most likely add fewer employees to start while that happens, he said.

Dropping a private contractor in favor of county staffing would appear to be a reversal from national trends toward privatizing many aspects of government.

“I think they’re finding that privatizing focuses on making money and in some cases maybe that works,” DeWeese said. “But I think there are safety net services that should be the responsibility of the county and not privatized.”

“We do have to be responsive to the taxpayers. But I think we can do the job better and more effectively than a private organization.”