Embattled Western Slope Mental Health Executive Resigns. Polis Appoints New State Mental Health Chief.

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Mind Springs President and CEO Sharon Raggio stepped down Tuesday, Jan. 4.

Her resignation after 14 years in the position comes after the Colorado News Collaborative and many of its news partners statewide published an investigative story outlining how the non-profit has failed Coloradans needing care in the 10 Western Slope counties it is contracted with the state to serve. That story is part of a broader investigation into problems with Colorado’s mental health safety-net system.

The article about Mind Springs detailed how the Grand Junction-based community mental health center – one of 17 regional centers statewide – has not been transparent about where and how it is spending state and federal tax dollars.

In an email Tuesday morning, Raggio gave little detail about the specifics of her resignation, but said the search for a new CEO was already under way.

“In the wake of recent media attention, I feel that my continued presence within the organization may act as a distraction from our core mission of delivering exceptional mental health and addiction recovery care to the communities we serve,” Raggio wrote. “It is my sincere hope that by making this change now, at the start of the New Year, the organization can move forward in a positive, productive manner and fully concentrate on the important work of saving lives.”

Chief Financial Officer Doug Pattison will lead the organization until the CEO position is permanently filled. The announcement noted that he formerly worked as CFO of Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo, Inc.

Mind Springs is responsible for providing mental health care for Medicaid recipients and people who are indigent, underinsured and in crisis in Routt, Moffat, Jackson, Rio Blanco, Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield and Mesa counties.

In interviews Tuesday with Steamboat Pilot & Today and COLab, commissioners in several of those counties called for better mental health resources in their mountain or rural communities, though their experiences with Mind Springs varied widely.

Routt County Commissioner Tim Redmond said he was frustrated when first told about the problems with Mind Springs, as taxpayers there fund services that people in crisis wait weeks or longer to access. 

“People in this community pay their taxes and those services should be there and available for them,” he said. “If these people can’t provide them for us, then we have to find another way to provide those services for our community.”

Routt County Commissioner Beth Melton signed on to a letter to Colorado Gov. Jared Polis asking him to take immediate action on reforming Colorado’s mental health safety-net system and more closely regulating the 17 regional community mental health centers statewide. So far, 51 county commissioners, four human services directors and one sheriff from throughout Colorado have signed. Though Melton is the only Routt commissioner who did, Redmond said he and the county’s third commissioner, Tim Corrigan, agree with the demands.

The letter specifically asks Polis to appoint a standing group to reform the way the centers pay their mental health workers, adding more transparency and accountability to the process. Commissioners who signed on also asked for the state to contract with more than one organization to handle local mental health needs.

“The need for behavioral health care is too great, and the programs too diverse for any one entity to cover by themselves,” the letter states.

Redmond said his biggest concern with the flaws exposed in the COLab investigation was the amount of time clients in crisis have had to wait to receive care.

“If you’re suicidal, it can take you 11 days to get an appointment,” Redmond said. “That is just not acceptable.”

Redmond said before her resignation, Raggio offered to meet with county commissioners, answer questions and discuss the nonprofit’s finances.

Now, Redmond wonders if the meeting is still worth the county’s time.

“Where is that money going, and what is it supporting and how do you justify that?” Redmond asked. “The system is broken, and the amount of money that Colorado spends and what it gets in return is just an embarrassment.”

Officials in Summit County also have described nightmare stories with Mind Springs, detailed in the COLab investigation. Asked about Raggio’s resignation, Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue said Tuesday that, “One person didn’t create this system and one person’s resignation isn’t going to fix it.” 

“The people that I know in my community who are struggling to access behavioral health services deserve care that is compassionate and immediate and appropriate to whatever their needs are,” she added. 

Eagle County has been so dissatisfied with Mind Springs’ care that it quietly split from the center and created its own last fall. Summit County also plans to break from Mind Springs and join Eagle County’s new organization, which is the first new community mental health center created in Colorado in decades. Eagle County has no intention to align its new center with the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council, the powerful trade group that long has lobbied for the centers to avoid closer scrutiny and tighter regulation by the state. 

“What I don’t want to have happen is that this conversation becomes solely (about) the CEO of Mind Springs. I hope all the leaders that have a voice in this conversation will recognize how much work still really needs to be done.”

In Pitkin and Grand counties, however, commissioners said their experiences with local Mind Springs services were mostly positive.

“We’ve been generally very happy with the state of affairs of the treatment for mental health and substance abuse issues across the county,” said Steve Child, a Pitkin County commissioner.

Child said the county has revamped its entire mental health services system, and Mind Springs came to the table with helpful solutions.

“It didn’t just happen by magic,” Child said. “It took a lot of work by a lot of people to get to that point, and Mind Springs was one of the partners.”

Still, Child believes Raggio’s resignation will help the organization better serve the area.

“I personally liked (Raggio) and will be sad to see her go, but I think it’s a good decision,” Child said. “Hopefully someone else can solve these issues that can be pretty worrisome.”

In Grand County, Commissioner Rich Cimino said Mind Springs’ local providers have been helpful to his constituents, but he believes problems stemmed from upper leadership.

“I thought that it was appropriate for (Raggio) to tender her resignation,” Cimino said. “I think the organization gets a tremendous amount of funding from the state and has not been transparent about the uses of the funds.”

Cimino pointed to factors he sees contributing to higher rates of depression and suicide in the mountain communities of Colorado, which ranks as the nation’s worst for rates of mental illness and access to mental health care: high costs of housing, competitive environments and a lack of publicly funded social-service programs.

“When you live in the beautiful mountains, people wonder how hard life can really be up there,” Cimino said. “It’s sort of hard to get state and federal assistance when we live in beautiful resort communities.” 

Commissioners from Moffat and Rio Blanco counties did not respond to multiple requests for comment Tuesday, and a commissioner from Jackson County said he could not comment by publishing time, as he wanted more time to familiarize himself with the issue.

In Mesa County, Commissioner Janet Rowland downplayed Raggio’s resignation, noting that she was planning on retiring in June, anyway. Rowland said her county is excited to have been awarded a $400,000 state grant to fill in some of the holes in Mind Springs’ coverage. 

Mind Springs, in the meantime, has hired a Denver-based public relations company to work in conjunction with Stephanie Keister, its own full-time spokeswoman. Keister in early December promised COLab partners information about Mind Springs’ spending that she still has not delivered, and questions remain among county commissioners, mental health watchdogs and the news media about the spending priorities of an organization that, during the biggest mental health crisis is modern history, has been turning people away from care or asking them to wait up to 11 months for appointments, COLab found. 

Keister said late Tuesday that “There is no one from the board or leadership available to speak” about what, if any, reforms the organization plans to make under a new CEO.

In other news Tuesday, the Polis administration announced its appointee to head Colorado’s Behavioral Health Administration, a new cabinet-level department slated to launch in July. 

Dr. Morgan Medlock is an emergency psychiatrist who previously served as the chief medical officer and head of Washington D.C.’s Crisis and Emergency Services. She also serves on the faculties of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Law, Brain, and Behavior and Howard University College Of Medicine, and has held a previous appointment as a Clinical Fellow in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. 

Medlock will start on Jan. 18, shortly after the beginning of Colorado’s legislative session. Lawmakers are set to decide the extent of oversight the new department should have over community mental health centers and how much the state should encourage — and fund — alternatives to them, especially when they drop clients in crisis from care.

This story is part of a statewide reporting project by the Colorado News Collaborative called On Edge. The project is supported in part by the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Reporting and a grant honoring the memory of the late Benjamin von Sternenfels Rosenthal. Our intent is to foster conversation about mental health in a state where stigma and a lack of access run high. To learn more about COLab, visit colabnews.co.