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The stay must go on the Maricopa County mental health care transition

When the Arizona Department of Health Services awarded a contract for a new model of care for thousands of persons with mental illness in Maricopa County, many in the behavioral health community rejoiced.

The promise of a visionary, medically integrated health care system for those with serious mental illness in our community is long overdue. The mentally ill of our state have long suffered years of neglect and poor oversight in our public systems.

Now, hope of integrated care is at risk, due to legal and bureaucratic entanglements.

In March, ADHS, after careful deliberation, awarded a contract for a new model of integrative care, combining behavioral health services with primary health care.  In Arizona, a person with a serious mental illness has a 32-year-shorter expected life span, due to physical issues for which they don’t get treatment.

The new system called for in this Regional Behavioral Health Authority (RBHA) contract will confront this long-standing problem head-on, and provide a single location for primary care and behavioral health care.

This is a big deal. The mental health community, consumers, providers, families, and all those served by the system, are excited about it.

The current RBHA provider, unsuccessful in its bid to renew its contract, has protested the award. After twice being denied, it now has been granted a stay by the Arizona Department of Administration that has put an immediate stop to many critical transition steps that began after the contract award in March.

As those of us in Maricopa County have experienced before, the transition from one RBHA to another can be difficult and complex. But this transition — from one clinical system model, serving behavioral health needs only, to one that seeks to meet all of a person’s health care needs — is major.

The protest is set to be heard by an administrative law judge Aug. 12. That will leave insufficient transition time to get the new system up and running by Oct. 1, as contemplated and promised.

An unsuccessful bidder has an absolute right to due process and to be provided a fair and impartial forum in which to present a case. But to paralyze an already fragile behavioral health system by continuing the stay order comes at the expense of the many individuals and families served by our current system, who are being denied the opportunity to benefit from the new integrated health care model called for under the new RHBA contract.

Our citizens — those with serious mental illness — can no longer be held hostage by the misguided actions of the unsuccessful bidder, seeking to maintain its hold on the nation’s largest public behavioral health contract at the expense of those it purports to serve.

It is in the public interest to lift the stay. The unsuccessful bidder will still have its right to proceed with its appeal, but, at the same time, those citizens of Arizona most in need of attention, the seriously mentally ill, will be able to benefit from the move to a fully integrated health care system.

— Charles Arnold is a mental health attorney in Phoenix, and is the named plaintiff in the long standing Class Action case of Arnold vs. Sarn.

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