County officials say the behavioral health organization has “on multiple occasions” been in breach of contract
By Mara Silvers MONTANA FREE PRESS
GALLATIN COUNTY – One of Montana’s leading providers of behavioral health services will no longer have an operating contract with Gallatin County as of Feb. 2.
Citing several breaches of its agreement, Gallatin County Commissioners and County Attorney Marty Lambert notified Western Montana Mental Health Center in a letter Monday, Jan. 10 that the agreement would be terminated in 15 business days.
“Gallatin County hereby advises all of you that WMMHC has, on multiple occasions, breached its contractual obligations to the County, including but not limited to, the provisions outlined below,” stated an accompanying Jan. 10 letter addressed to WMMHC chairperson Levi Anderson.
Gallatin County has been paying WMMHC $29,417.50 monthly to provide a range of services. One is the provision of at least one bed for temporary, involuntary holds at WMMHC’s Hope House in Bozeman for people whose mental health crisis presents a danger to themselves or others. County officials say Hope House has been insufficiently operated at various times in recent years.
“The [Gallatin County] commissioners have been very fair to Western throughout this process. And they’ve been very patient,” Lambert said in a Wednesday phone interview. “They finally said enough is enough.”
Ending the more than 10-year contract, Lambert said, “finally allows us to move forward with the provision of these very important crisis services which have only been sporadically met by Western for quite some time.”
WMMHC’s Anderson attributes much of the difficulty at Hope House to low staffing levels exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic — an issue he says is not unique to his organization.
“The entire State of Montana is experiencing a drastic workforce shortage and behavioral health providers, WMMHC included, are struggling with workforce,” Anderson said in a Wednesday email, adding that his organization has had to be “nimble” to modify services during the pandemic. “The Gallatin County Commission and County Attorney are alleging a breach of service based on these pandemic-related operational challenges that have been experienced by many organizations, including the County themselves.”
While payments from Gallatin County will end Feb. 2, Anderson said parts of Hope House and other mental health services at its Gallatin campus will remain operational. WMMHC staff will “continue to support the needs of the Gallatin community as best we can,” he said.
Starting Feb. 3, Lambert said, county law enforcement intends to take people experiencing acute mental health crises to Bozeman Health hospital for temporary holds until they can appear before a district court judge to assess whether commitment to the Montana State Hospital is appropriate.
Lambert said the county does not expect to enter into a new contract with any other behavioral health care provider, which would require issuing a request for proposals to interested organizations, before WMMHC’s contract ends. The county’s agreement with Bozeman Health, he said, will provide an emergency resource for people in crisis until the county can find new providers to work with long-term.
“One very immediate need [is] the crisis response,” Lambert said. “We want a safety net there.”
Bozeman Health has expressed interest in purchasing WMMHC properties, including the Hope House, to expand the health provider’s footprint. The Hope House property is within a mile of Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital.
In November, Bozeman Health announced it had made an offer on the property for an undisclosed amount, but WMMHC declined. On Wednesday, Anderson said that offer was unsatisfactory.
“The prior offer would have forced WMMHC to accept a nearly $4M loss on real assets based on our cost to build the infrastructure,” Anderson said. “That is not a realistic or acceptable position.”
Regarding the future of the property, Anderson said WMMHC “has been at the table and working in good faith to arrive at a resolution that will benefit the residents of Gallatin County.”