County leaders speak out after Mind Springs CEO resigns
Eagle County Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney says county’s frustrations stem from a lack of transparency
Colorado News Collaborative, Steamboat Pilot & Today and Vail Daily
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 its news partners statewide published an investigative story outlining how the nonprofit 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 underway.
“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 this week with the Steamboat Pilot & Today, the Vail Daily, 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.
Eagle County Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney said most of the frustrations with Mind Springs stemmed from a lack of transparency and not knowing if state funding that was earmarked for Eagle County was actually being used in Eagle County.
“I don’t know that we ever had really clear conversations with Mind Springs, other than our frustrations,” she said. “But it wasn’t to the degree that was reported in the paper, like Summit County’s conversations. I think we were appreciative of their efforts and had been working with them in this collaborative, relationship-building way that we understood to some degree the limitations. We were frustrated by the lack of transparency that most everyone does speak about. They cover such a big geographic area that it wasn’t all that clear that the funding that was earmarked for Eagle County was staying in Eagle County.”
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 cannot access for weeks, if not longer.
“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 service 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 hire more than one agency 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 article 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 article. 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.
“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 Eagle County, Vail Health and its wholly-owned subsidiary Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, are attempting to fill the gaps in the system by becoming the county’s mental health provider. It is the first new community mental health center created in Colorado in decades.
McQueeney said the county has yet to sign on the dotted line, switching the county’s designated mental health center from Mind Springs to Eagle Valley Behaviorial Health, which would then redirect state funds, but she is encouraged by the developments.
Specifically, she said Eagle Valley Behavioral Health has done a much better job at hiring bilingual mental health professionals, something Mind Springs made efforts to do that never really came to fruition.
“When you have one single focus of Eagle County as Eagle Valley Behavioral Health does, it’s just smaller geographically to say this is our focus and this is what we’re going to do,” she said. “It doesn’t have the bureaucracy of this very big organization.”
She added: “Eagle Valley Behavioral Health had the ability to move quickly and make changes. And they solved that problem. You now have bilingual therapists.“
Summit County also plans to break from Mind Springs and join Eagle County’s new organization. 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.
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 an array of factors he sees contributing to higher rates of depression and suicide in the mountain communities of a state that 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 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.
This article was written in partnership between the Vail Daily, Steamboat Pilot & Today and the Colorado News Collaborative.