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Pinellas’ big mental health connection plans coming soon, officials say

The years-long effort includes a call-center program, set to launch this spring, that will help people get appointments with one phone call.
 
Pinellas County commissioner Kathleen Peters, pictured during a commission meeting in 2022, has been among the officials pushing for improvements to the local mental healthcare system. Some of those — including a call-center program that aims to make it easier for those in need to get appointments — are close to fruition.
Pinellas County commissioner Kathleen Peters, pictured during a commission meeting in 2022, has been among the officials pushing for improvements to the local mental healthcare system. Some of those — including a call-center program that aims to make it easier for those in need to get appointments — are close to fruition. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 26, 2023

Years-in-the-making efforts to centralize and improve Pinellas County’s scattered mental health care system are close to coming to fruition, county officials said Thursday.

One component, a call center that will help people in need set appointments with an array of providers in the county with one phone call or online chat, is set for a soft launch in “the next couple of months,” said Lourdes Benedict, an assistant county administrator.

The update to the county’s mental health initiative were a key topic Thursday when County Commission met to discuss priorities for next year’s budget. The call-center program, called the Coordinated Access Model, emerged from a 2019 strategic planning session. Discussions then led to a county-funded study that found several barriers and burdens in the county’s behavioral health ecosystem.

Those included a lack of knowledge about how to get care for mental health and substance use problems in the first place, Benedict reminded county commissioners.

“They don’t know who to call,” she said. “People end up in an emergency room, they end up in a crisis center.”

The Coordinated Access Model is meant to address that problem, as well as the lack of communication between different behavioral health care providers, which typically operate in “silos,” the study found. People seeking non-emergency care will be able to contact the call center, staffed six days a week via the University of South Florida by professional therapists and doctoral students, who will in turn set up an appointment for the caller. That setup will mark a difference from superficially similar programs in other counties that only provide referrals, leaving the caller to make more calls if they want to find help.

“What we’re doing is different from everybody else,” Commissioner Kathleen Peters said. “The reason people don’t get help is because it’s too hard to navigate the system.”

Benedict said the county anticipates the center fielding about a thousand calls per month, though it will be prepared to scale up or down with need. Most local providers have agreed to set aside appointments for people who go through the service, though convincing them to do so has taken years, said County Administrator Barry Burton.

The county is also closer to a data-sharing program that will let it analyze how well the county’s behavioral health system is working — another big change, given how disconnected providers have been from each other. Health providers with county contracts will be required to share the data. That, too, has taken years, in getting providers to agree on what data they’ll report and ironing out legal aspects of the plan.

“You can just imagine what a huge project that has been,” Benedict said. “We’re in a much better place than we were a year ago.”