Walden Counseling Services CEO Dr. Kathy O’Brien at a previous meeting

Leonardtown, MD — Two St. Mary’s County agencies that provide services to people with mental health and substance abuse problems have criticized a proposal to move the administration of their programs from county government to the county health department. Representatives of Walden Counseling Services and the Department of Social Services testified against the proposal at a March 29 public hearing called by the county commissioners.

A staff of four-and-a-half county employees currently administers grants received from the state Mental Hygiene Administration and Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration. The employees are within the Department of Aging and Community Services, an agency formed in 2011 under the leadership of Lori Jennings-Harris, the former aging director.

The county agency in turn contracts services out in the form of grants to such providers as Walden, Pathways and Adult Recovery Court through the circuit court.  The system does leave the commissioners in the loop in that they must approve the grants, but sometimes that slows down the process, state officials say.

That is one reason the state recommended last year that the county turn over administration of the programs to the health department. The state also says the majority of the counties have the health department as the administrator.

County Administrator Rebecca Bridgett convened two meetings last year of “stakeholders” to discuss the issue and out of those meetings came the recommendation to the commissioners for the change. The commissioners called for the public hearing.

At the public hearing Walden CEO Dr. Kathy O’Brien, Walden Board Treasurer Julie Randall (a former county commissioners’ president) and county Department of Social Services Director Ella Mae Russell all testified against the move. O’Brien heads the leading agency in the county that provides behavioral health services. She said the agency is in its 43rd year so it must be in a mid-life crisis with the proposal.

Dr. O’Brien said that the county is a model for the rest of the state with its continuum of care for behavioral health (mental health and substance abuse) issues. She said the argument that the current system is burdensome is not an issue for her agency. “We are used to the lag time,” she said.

Randall called for an even stronger county role in the behavioral health area, not less. “The citizens depend on the county to meet their needs,” she asserted.

Russell noted that Walden has a staff person embedded in her agency to deal with her client’s needs. “I am very concerned how that will be impacted if the changes are made,” she said.

Two spokespeople for Adult Recovery Court run by the St. Mary’s County Circuit Court argued on behalf of the proposed administrative changes. John K. Parlett, who serves on the program’s citizen’s advisory board, said health is not part of the day-to-day responsibilities of the Office of Aging and Human Services

Michael Kent, also on the advisory board and a graduate of the program, said “I think the health department could and would do a better job.”

Amy Henderson, a citizen, said people now don’t know where to go for services and having them in county government is not a place they would normally think to look, However the county staff does not actually provide for services, but administer the grants that in turn are contracted out to agencies such as Walden and the Adult Recovery Court.

O’Brien in her testimony also noted that her agency had not been asked to participate in the meetings that led to the recommendation for a change.

St. Mary’s County Health Officer Dr. Meenakshi Brewster said at the public meeting that the health department was not advocating one way or the other for the change and would do whatever was decided. She did however point out that the health department was a county health department serving exclusively the citizens of the county.

When the subject was brought up to the commissioners, Commissioner Todd Morgan [R – 4th District] expressed concern about what would happen to the county staff persons administering the programs within the Office of Aging and Human Services if the program is switched to the health department. At the public hearing he asked Jennings-Harris to report to them on what the impact would be on her department with such a change.

One of the changes at the state level that prompted the proposal is the switch to fee-based service for behavioral health. Morgan also asked what impact that would have on the future of the programs both for those able and unable to pay for the services.

The commissioners will leave the record open for a minimum of seven days for written testimony before making a decision.

Contact Dick Myers at dick.myers@thebaynet.com