Calmer heads need to prevail in an overheated clash between two private health care management companies and the state over providing mental health services in Maricopa County, or thousands of people who depend on taxpayers for their treatment are going to suffer needlessly.
The state Department of Health Services funds the nation’s largest public network for people who are suffer from serious mental illnesses, suicidal tendencies and dangerous drug addictions. For 25 years, this system has been under court supervision because it had failed to make proper treatment available as required by state and federal law.
As part of a settlement of the original lawsuit, the state has contracted with private firm ValueOptions for the past decade. ValueOptions has organized the funding of services, similar to a managed care insurer or HMO, and also directly provided treatment through 23 clinics where it employs psychiatrists and other medical professionals. While an improvement over the past, ValueOptions has not been a panacea for Valley mental health care. Court auditors have been critical of its management, patients and their families have sued alleging neglect and malpractice, and the state has assessed fines.
State officials decided to see if they could do better, and went to a competitive bid process for a new contract worth $1.5 billion. When top officials from ValueOptions met with the Tribune Editorial Board earlier this year, they made some good arguments about how the state, the courts and the media have focused too much on its missteps and not enough on its positive contributions. But ValueOptions knew there was a serious risk of losing the contract, and its leaders acknowledged the firm has an obligation to ease the transition to any replacement company so that the care of 70,000 Valley clients wasn’t abruptly disrupted.
In June, the state did award the contract to a new provider, Magellan Health Services, which is supposed to take over in September. That’s a quick turnaround for an operation of this size, so difficulties were bound to arise no matter how well various interests worked together.
But ValueOptions used its legal challenge of the bidding outcome to demand that the state delay Magellan’s takeover. When state officials refused, ValueOptions threatened to close its clinics rather than transfer control, a move that could interfere with treatment for months for some patients. Over the weekend, state officials met with both companies in an attempt to stop the posturing and prevent the worst-possible outcome.
Some day, the governor, the Legislature and the county need to take a more critical examination of how taxpayers came to operate a system more massive than similar mental health safety nets in far larger metropolitan areas. But for now, everyone involved needs to look past the dollars involved and their egos and focus on doing what’s right for ill people who need their help.