Strategic plan for behavioral health system in Montana will cost millions

By: - July 29, 2023 10:30 am

Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (Photo by Matt Volz | Kaiser Health News).

The state health department is likely to award a contract to study the state’s behavioral health system that will cost between $5 million and $10 million.

The Department of Public Health and Human Services is looking for a contractor to support the department in “designing and implementing a cohesive behavioral health system and developmental disability service strategy,” according to a request for proposal.

DPHHS spokesperson Jon Ebelt said in an email Wednesday contractors would be awarded between $5 million and $10 million, a price that seemed unprecedented to at least one legislator. The request for proposals said the department would be awarding the contract between two to four weeks after its closure.

The Department of Administration, which is managing the proposal, did not respond to questions sent Wednesday surrounding who applied for the contract and the finalists being considered.

The money is coming from a $300 million pot allocated from House Bill 872, sponsored by Rep. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork. The bill also created a commission made up of legislators, DPHHS Director Charlie Brereton and leaders from behavioral health and disability nonprofits which is tasked with advising the governor on how the state should improve services, like at the state hospital in Warm Springs, and expand community-based services.

Keenan told the Daily Montanan Friday that the task before the commission is “overwhelming” due to the complex nature of the issue.

“The biggest most immediate need is crisis response at the community level and family support,” he said.

Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, said she’s previously participated in a number of health department advisory commissions, but none that requested consultants with as high a price tag.

“We could do it a heck of a lot cheaper by tapping into the expertise of the providers and the families who struggle every day and can very clearly tell you what we need,” Caferro told the Daily Montanan. “​​Think of what $10 million could do to help people right now.”

Keenan did not speak to Caferro’s comments directly, but said they’re going to “pick a provider that knows what they’re doing.”

“We want to do it right,” he said.

He said other states like North Dakota have contracted their behavioral health plan.

“This is not about spending $300 million,” Keenan said of the commission. “This is about rebuilding a system that can give some comfort to families and people that are struggling with mental illnesses, as well as you combine the provider rate increase increases that we did in the last session, and we should begin to get a foundation built for a a new, innovative, compassionate, fiscally responsible, mental health system.”

Caferro emphasized that people will suffer to access treatment and may take their own lives in the time it will take for the contractor to complete its work. She did not vote for Keenan’s bill citing concerns about transparency and accountability from Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration. The committee has until the start of the next fiscal year on July 1, 2024 to submit its recommendations, to be completed in conjunction with the contractor, to the governor.

Keenan said he tells families that are struggling with relatives going through behavioral health issues, “I can’t fix what happened yesterday, but we can learn from it and move forward.”

He talked about people who have called him asking for help seeking services for their families needs.

“There are so many layers to this onion,” he said. “What we can do immediately is inform people of their options, try to connect them with services to solve their problems.”

During the legislative session earlier this year, Caferro championed increasing Medicaid provider rates to what a study, provided by out-of-state consultant Guidehouse, recommended. She had to lobby hard to get funding to where the study suggested. Caferro said she sees a similar trajectory here, acknowledging the work Guidehouse did in its study.

“However, what does it matter when the department ignores the outcome?” she said.

Keenan said the $2.75 million study led to $330 million in provider rate increases in the last legislative session.

Brereton said during the meeting last week the department plans to execute the contract by the end of August or early September.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.