For-profit, out-of-state company may replace local providers as operator of county’s new behavioral health center

Potential change creates heated words between LMH, county leaders

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

The Treatment and Recovery Center, located on the Treatment and Recovery Campus of Douglas County at 1000 W. Second St., is pictured on Friday, April 15, 2022.

UPDATED 3:55 P.M. OCT. 17, 2022

The community’s new behavioral health care center could’ve been partially open months ago, and Douglas County leaders now are considering turning over its operations to a for-profit, out-of-state company, documents obtained by the Journal-World show.

In a Sept. 2 email, LMH Health President Russ Johnson said leaders with LMH Health and Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center were prepared to fully open the Treatment and Recovery Center of Douglas County by Nov. 15.

But in that email, he also said leaders had communicated to the county that the access center — a space located at the main entrance of the building for patients experiencing less severe crises to be seen in consultation rooms — could have opened at any time for 45 days prior to that email, or roughly around mid-July.

Douglas County leaders have not committed to opening the entire center by Nov. 15, and the access center also is not open. No part of the center is open, despite the center at 1000 W. Second Street hosting a ribbon cutting in June.

Weeks later, another email from Johnson informed trustees that Douglas County Administrator Sarah Plinsky had recommended discontinuing the county’s relationship with Behavioral Health Partners, a non-profit organization formed by LMH Health and Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center to develop and manage the center.

Instead of Behavioral Health Partners, Johnson said Plinsky presented a proposal in early September that would have Connections Health Solutions, an Arizona-based behavioral health crisis center, oversee the Treatment and Recovery Center for three years. The Heritage Group, a health care-focused private equity firm based in Nashville, has Connections in its portfolio.

“While we have completed our development role, ongoing operations is now in doubt,” Johnson said in another email to trustees sent last Thursday afternoon.

Plinsky confirmed Monday afternoon that the county has indeed been engaged in ongoing discussions with Connections, which she said has been a consultant for the county since March of 2019, that include the possibility of operating the center for an initial period of time. But there isn’t an agreement currently in place on that front, Plinsky said, nor is the county targeting any date for the center to begin operations at this time. An email from Johnson dated Sept. 21 notes that the county may have wanted to facilitate an opening date of Monday, Jan. 3, 2023, which Plinsky also said hasn’t been determined.

The county’s contract with Behavioral Health Partners expired at the end of June, and Plinsky said county officials have repeatedly made BHP leadership aware of their concerns about their readiness to operate the facility, including in February, July, August and September. Plinsky said the county expects that if Connections is engaged to operate the center, Bert Nash will continue to play an important role in the delivery of services at the center, and it’s the county’s hope that LMH Health will also remain involved.

Johnson said in an email last week that he’s not so sure LMH Health will remain involved in the center if Connections, which he identifies as a “venture-capital owned company” is running the center.

“I remain optimistic that a meaningful role for BHP will result,” Johnson said in an Oct. 13 email to LMH’s Board of Trustees. “However, it is my opinion that if BHP is not kept in its role to operate the TRC, we should separate from this project. We would not be well-served engaging closely with with Connections to provide support functions in a vendor-client role that does not further the mission of BHP or the purpose of LMH Health.”

If Connections does end up running the center, it would be a significant change from what the public has been told for years about how the center would be run by a coalition of local health care providers including LMH Health and the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.

The documents obtained by the Journal-World show that potential change has sparked heated dialogue between Plinsky, the county administrator, and Johnson at LMH.

“I found the action you relayed to be a betrayal of our years of work together and, what I understood to be, a fundamental commitment to collaboration as the means by which we will make enduring and remarkable progress in the health of our community,” Johnson said in Sept. 12 email to Plinsky, referencing a previous conversation the two leaders had.

In her response to that email, nearly a month later, Plinsky accepted an apology Johnson offered for any disrespectful comments he may have made, and she also apologized on her part. But she also told Johnson she was “taken back by the conversation.”

“That conversation left me thinking that you felt I was incompetent and that I didn’t know what I was doing,” Plinsky said in an Oct. 7 email to Johnson. “I was saddened that you had so little respect for me or belief in my judgement or thought processes.”

Johnson made statements in an earlier, Sept. 2 email to LMH Health trustees that provided a glimpse of how suspicious LMH leadership had become regarding its dealings with the county. In the email, Johnson told trustees that the center could be open by Nov. 15 and the access center could have been opened much earlier. Then, he speculated that the county may been intentionally withholding its approval to open the center in an effort to make LMH and the partnership look bad.

“We believe it is possible the county has intentionally held off on approvals and agreements, creating the perception we can’t deliver on operations and services,” Johnson said in the Sept. 2 email.

On Monday, Plinsky denied that the county ever took such action.

“The county has not intentionally withheld approvals or agreements with BHP,” Plinsky said via email. Plinsky also added that the county’s goal is for the center to “open and operate successfully,” and that county administration “believes that additional resources will be necessary for that to happen.”

Midday Monday, LMH Health sent an email to community stakeholders providing an update on the TRC project, and acknowledged the possible changes in plans for the operation of the center. LMH Health sent that communication after it was notified by the Journal-World that the newspaper would be publishing an article about the potential changes and dispute on Monday afternoon.

While Douglas County leaders have said it’s uncertain when the community’s new behavioral health care center can open, LMH Health’s leader contends a key part of the facility was ready to open this summer, documents obtained by the Journal-World show. Documents obtained by the Journal-World included statements about how LMH had hoped to keep these conversations out of the public’s view, and Johnson in his Monday email acknowledged “we had hoped to avoid a public debate.”

Leaders with LMH Health and Bert Nash had agreed to a 3:30 p.m. interview with the Journal-World on Monday, but cancelled the interview just prior to the time it was scheduled to begin. The Journal-World will continue to seek comment from LMH and Bert Nash in the coming days.

The Journal-World also submitted an open records request with the county last week for documents related to the matter. The county is in the process of gathering and reviewing those documents, a county spokeswoman said.


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