Colorado Legislature Orders Audit of the State’s 17 Nonprofit Community Mental Health Centers – by Jan Wondra
As early as today, March 22, Colorado’s Legislative Audit Committee could see the state auditor’s first bill that would authorize the investigation of the 17 nonprofit community mental health centers in the state. State, which together represent the State’s approach to mental health. to residents of Colorado. For the past 60 years, each has been granted “non-compete contracts and preferred rate status”, critics say, “without meaningful oversight”.
In January 2022, reps Dafna Michaelson Jenet, (D-Aurora) and Colin Larson (R-Littleton), and the senses. Robert Rodriquez (D-Denver) and Julie Gonzales (D-Denver), who are all members of the audit committee, met to demand an audit of operations. Their decision does not happen in a vacuum.
The audit bill was ordered after months of investigative reporting by several members of the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab), including Voice of the Valley of the Ark is a member. In December, COLab reported that centers “collectively treated fewer clients during the pandemic than before, despite skyrocketing mental health needs.”
At that time, the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council, which advocates for community clinics statewide, came forward saying it believed an audit of activity in all 17 regions was warranted and, in a letter to Governor Jared Polis, requested that the state conduct such an audit.
The Colorado News Collaborate report found that while the need for mental health services has increased dramatically, “more than half of centers are sitting on liquid reserves of $10 million or more. The Denver center kept more than $40 million in cash reserves while its customers faced record wait times for care.
Within this region, the four-county area served by Solvista Health includes Chaffee, Fremont, Lake and Custer counties. By the end of the year, CEO Brian Turner reported that Solvista Health had served more than 5,300 people, but he tracked that to a 96% increase from 2017, not 2021.
Among the findings of several mental health care providers revealed in COLab’s survey work:
- While certainly not intended, the state payment system has actually created a financial incentive for centers to accept fewer sick people and charge higher costs, while protecting them from competition.
- Many of these providers appear to charge the state significantly more for treating Medicaid patients (which they are required to do by law); up to 17 times more than independent providers for the same Medicaid patient services. But there has been very little transparency as to why the rates for these mental health providers are so much higher, or summaries of the providers returned that would explain significantly higher rates.
- Some of the centers have been contracted for services they have not yet provided; money on the table that seems to do – nothing – except for the profit margins of the nonprofits that received the funding.
- Many mental health care providers have had no Spanish-speaking care providers, even when contracted to serve populations with high rates of Spanish speakers. This includes Sol Vista, who admitted in a December 2021 interview with Voice of the Valley of the Ark that it has yet to meet its own expectations for serving Spanish-speaking customers in its service area, particularly in Lake County.
The audit overlaps with another state action: Colorado is in the process of authorizing a new Behavioral Health Administration (HB 1278) that is supposed to centralize the many overlapping areas of mental health oversight into a transparent and more organized. Also this week, lawmakers will consider the first of several bills that could authorize the spending of $450 million in US federal dollars on behavioral health, which would stem from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Editor’s Note: The Colorado News Collaborative, including Voice of the Valley of the Ark is a member, spent several months doing investigative reporting on the 17 nonprofit mental health centers that make up Colorado’s approach to providing mental health services to Colorado residents. The image shown identifies the 17 regions.
#On the edge