Change in Pierce County mental health services trims 130 jobs

Some mental health services handled by Pierce County will soon be delivered through a private provider under a new system being set up by the state.

Officials with Pierce County, the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) and OptumHealth pledged to work together on a smooth transition for the 15,000 low-income residents who rely on the state-funded assistance.

The shift is accompanied by severe budget cuts DSHS must make due to declining revenues. DSHS said the new system will be supported by additional federal Medical funds by switching from the county’s 48-bed program in one location to a privately-run group of 16-bed facilities.

As a result of the shift to the privately-operated program, Pierce County will close its crisis and evaluation and treatment units at the end of September, resulting in the loss of about 130 county jobs. However, the state said OptumHealth, the contractor it hired to be the county’s Regional Support Network (RSN), agreed that its subcontractors would look to those employees first as it staffs an interim crisis center at Western State Hospital. OptumHealth said the interim system will total 45 beds.

Ultimately, the Western State Hospital center will be phased out as OptumHealth opens other sites in the county.

Until 2007, the state paid Pierce County to administer mental health services in the county, using state and federal funds. The county terminated its Regional Support Network contract two years ago because the state was unable to fully fund mental health services. In January, the state selected Minnesota-based OptumHealth among four bidders to operate the Pierce County system.

During the talks over the past six months, OptumHealth determined that it needed to decentralize the system and create the 16-bed units that would qualify for federal Medicaid funding. The company asked the county to operate one of those facilities, but the county had to decline because its daily bed rate is based on economies of scale achieved by operating the comprehensive system. Operating just one 16-bed facility would increase the county’s per-bed cost by $2.6 million over a year.