Trying Times: Down economy means increased demand for services at Colorado West Mental Health

Given the times, it may come as no surprise that demand is up at Colorado West Regional Mental Health.
Colorado West, which has its corporate headquarters in Glenwood Springs, serves a 10-county area, including Rio Blanco County, and has offices in Meeker and Rangely.
“What we have seen is an increase in the number of uninsured who are seeking care,” said Sharon Raggio, chief executive officer of Colorado West. “I know the staff out there (in Rio Blanco County) is very busy and sees a high number of clients for the number of staff they have.”
Fallout from the down economy — the loss of a job, the loss of income, the loss of insurance benefits — adds to people’s stress levels.
“In general, I would say, yes, we are seeing people who have compounded stresses, because of the economy,” Raggio said. “I think everybody’s stress is compounded because of the economy. People are seeing their retirement benefits dwindle. People are concerned their jobs may cease to exist. Many people have already lost jobs, which leads to untold consequences, such as foreclosure, loss of retirement, inability to buy food or pay for health care.”
As a result, people may turn to substances — legal or otherwise — as a coping mechanism or to numb the pain.
“People might turn to drugs or alcohol, which leads to other unintended consequences that are sometimes worse than the ones they are already dealing with,” Raggio said.
Michelle Huber, who is program coordinator of the Rangely office for Colorado West, said the economy “is impacting us every day.”
Huber, who has been with Colorado West for 12 years, said, “For the first time since I’ve worked here, we are not accepting any new intakes, except Medicaid clients, we are so full.”
For Huber, business has never been so busy.
“I am double my expected caseload,” she said. “Without a doubt, I would say that the economy is a huge part of it.”
And, like Raggio said, Huber is seeing the fallout from the economic downturn and what it does to people’s lives.
“When the economy goes, substance abuse increases, domestic abuse increases, depression and anxiety increase,” Huber said. “Then you have individual problems and family issues.”
And when people lose jobs, they lose insurance benefits. So more people are finding it harder to pay for services.
“Tons more (people) are not insured,” Huber said.
Say a person has the money to pay for services, there are still no openings in the appointment book.
“Even if we had a person call and ask to be seen, and was willing to pay, I couldn’t take them on,” Huber said. “There are just not enough hours in the day.
“I was born and raised in this community, and I want to meet the needs, but they are over and above,” Huber said. “That’s tragic.”
The two Colorado West offices in Rio Blanco County work closely together.
“We’re tied at the hip, because we are Rio Blanco County,” said Margot Robb, who is the program coordinator for the Meeker office.
“We’re one unit, really,” added Huber. “We work as closely as we can with Meeker, to make sure the communities’ needs are met, and vice versa.”
There can be a stigma associated with people seeking mental health services. The staffs at the two Colorado West offices in Rio Blanco County work to protect people’s privacy.
“Because we’re in a small town, (privacy) is a concern, but they can come in the back door,” Robb said. “For other people, they don’t give a hoot (about being seen).”
Having the two offices in the county gives people an option of whether to visit the Rangely office or the Meeker office.
“It offers people a choice,” Huber said. “It completely protects confidentiality.”
Because of the remoteness of the Colorado West offices in Rio Blanco, the staff can utilize what Robb called tele-pyschiatry, where psychiatrists are made available by videoconference.
“We mainly use this for our psychiatrists,” Robb said. “They’re not in the office. They are on the machine. But that really helps in rural psychiatry. We use it every day.”
Colorado West offers a sliding scale for its services. Providing access to services is part of the group’s mission statement.
“We take our mission statement seriously,” Raggio said. “A lot of folks are losing their jobs, therefore they are losing their benefits and they don’t have the resources to pay for health care. We offer an ability to pay scale.”
Raggio recently completed her first year at CEO of Colorado West. Her first day on the job was March 1, 2008. She came to Colorado West from Pikes Peak Behavioral Health Group in Colorado Springs.
When Raggio came on board, Colorado West, which includes 18 offices throughout northwest Colorado as well as a psychiatric hospital in Grand Junction, was facing serious challenges.
“When I first started, we had two main issues we had to address,” Raggio said. “One was the hospital in Grand Junction. It was not functioning fully in compliance with state or federal regs, so we immediately started to work on that. We worked hard, and by the end of the the summer, when the state and feds both came back for reviews to see the progress we had made, we were back in compliance.”
As part of its plan to address the non-compliance problem at the psychiatric hospital, Raggio temporarily reduced the number of beds at the facility.
“We did decrease our capacity to 16 beds last summer, so we cut it in half,” Raggio said. “We are now back to all 32 beds open. That was effective Dec. 1.”
The other issue Raggio had to deal with was Colorado West’s finances.
“The organization was carrying too much debt,” Raggio said. “I have a plan to address this … it’s a plan that’s in progress. It will take a few more months to complete.”
Asked if it involved cutbacks or closing any Colorado West facilities, Raggio said, ‘At this point, I anticipate that, yes, those facilities will remain open. We did not receive any state budget cuts for fiscal year ‘09, but we will for fiscal year ‘10. What those will like look, it’s not yet final.”
Of Colorado West’s budget, Raggio said, “Approximately, 48 percent comes from state funding in one way or another.”
In her role as CEO of an organization that covers a 10-county area, Raggio tries to circulate as much as possible.
“I’m on the road a lot,” she said.
When Raggio is on the road, she hears about how important mental health services are, especially in more remote parts of the state like Rio Blanco County.
“I was out visiting not too long ago, and I met with a stakeholder group, and what I heard was just how much the services that Colorado West offers in Rio Blanco County are needed and how valuable they are,” Raggio said. “They said repeatedly we need these services.”