A Friday meeting left mental health professionals and local law enforcement “cautiously optimistic” about improvements that can be made to crisis services in Umatilla County.
“The most important thing is that Lifeways and law enforcement agreed to work together to create a better structure for communication and information sharing,” said Kevin Campbell, the CEO of Greater Oregon Behavioral Health, Inc.
The meeting included county mental health provider Lifeways, its administrative organization GOBHI, and chiefs of most of the county’s police departments. It was prompted by a message last week from Campbell, who issued a public statement saying that if Lifeways did not make “key changes” by Feb. 20 their contract for crisis services in Umatilla County would be terminated.
After Friday’s meeting, Pendleton Police Chief Stuart Roberts said he felt more optimistic about mental health services in the county than he had in a long time.
“We agree that as long as there are deliverables in the next 90 days we are willing to work together,” he said.
Roberts said the group formed a couple of immediate goals: specifically, bringing in an outside consultant to work with Lifeways and setting up a coalition to address case-specific issues.
He said Lifeways hoped to hire a consultant within the next couple of weeks.
Roberts said the idea for a coalition was proposed by new Lifeways CEO Tim Hoekstra, who started work with the organization just this week.
“It’s a strategy he’s previously employed,” Roberts said.
Campbell said they also identified some of the challenges Lifeways has faced.
“I believe one barrier in the past has been consistency in personnel,” he said, referring to Lifeways’ frequent rotation of leaders based in the county.
Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston said he also felt the meeting was productive, but noted it was first step in a long process.
“Today was getting all the initial players in the room,” he said. “Now we have to get down to the nitty gritty. Are there areas as a group, as a county, or as a city where we can step beside Lifeways as a partner?”
Roberts didn’t disguise his past frustration with the organization and the general state of mental health care in the county.
He said law enforcement in Umatilla County once had the Blue Mountain Recovery Center in Pendleton as a place to take people going through a mental health crisis.
“It used to be if we found somebody in crisis who was either a danger to themselves or others or unable to care for themselves, we would transfer them to BMRC,” Roberts said before Friday’s meeting. “If they had drugs or alcohol on board that prohibited the doc from making an evaluation, they went downstairs to detox.”
One of the facility’s three psychiatrists examined each person.
“If someone stayed, they stayed for 48 hours in the facility, which was staffed and geared to deal with people in crisis or to deal with true mental illness,” Roberts said.
Roberts remembers BMRC closing the doors to law enforcement in the mid-1990s. Lifeways was brought in to fill the gap.
“Lifeways comes in on a contract and the entire process just gets set on its ear,” Roberts said. “Things have never been what they should be in terms of serving an ever-growing population (of mentally ill in crisis). We have continually participated in audits, collaborative meetings, sequential intercept mapping, this, that and the other thing and nothing ever changes.”
Roberts’ officers see everything from depression to schizophrenia on the streets. It often falls to the officer on the beat to de-escalate mental crises, he said. Often, with no other options, people with mental illness end up at the emergency room or in jail. And then soon back on the street, problems unsolved.
Roberts said he had been especially frustrated about Lifeways’ reluctance to deal with people who are intoxicated. Mental illness and substance use, he said, are often woven together and tough to tease apart. Yet, Lifeways has created too many rules for eligibility, hamstringing the organization.
“Eligibility should not even be a part of the conversation. If we look at the demographic we deal with on a regular basis, it is not unusual for folks suffering with mental illness to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol,” Roberts said. “If they are under the influence, (Lifeways) won’t even talk to them.”
But he acknowledged Lifeways’ openness at the meeting.
“I’m appreciative they came to the table with a level of humility,” he said.
Hoekstra had most recently worked in Wenatchee, Washington as the Behavioral Health Director at Columbia Valley Community Health. Hoekstra said his background as a therapist and drug and alcohol counselor helped him develop an interest in dealing with broader health care issues.
He said he visited Umatilla County before accepting the job, and was impressed with the people he met.
“Lifeways, and the systems of care in Umatilla County, are not unlike other areas with their challenges,” he said at a meet-and-greet on Thursday. “There [is] no way to understand the totalities of those challenges, but you hit the ground running.”
He said he was looking forward to meeting with the local law enforcement groups on Friday to look at the community’s health care needs.
Hoekstra said he was not informed of GOBHI’s announcement before it was released.
He said he had identified several goals as Lifeways’ new CEO.
“Creating a collaborative, effective partnership with a community,” Hoekstra said. “Continually improving [systems] over time, improving outcomes for patients, and controlling costs.”
Roberts said he was eager to move forward.
“It’s easy to make a commitment. The tough part is delivering,” he said. “I would say it’s as good as I could have hoped for.”