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State Officials Herald New Mental Health Access Center In Iowa City

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courtesy of GuideLink Center
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The soon to open GuideLink Center in Iowa City will serve as a mental health urgent care center, offering around the clock crisis stabilization and treatment.

The opening of a new mental health access center in Iowa City is being lauded by Gov. Kim Reynolds and Department of Human Services Director Kelly Garcia. The officials toured the brand new facility Thursday to learn more about the approach, which advocates call innovative.

All too often, people experiencing a behavioral health or substance use crisis find themselves in an emergency room or a jail, when what they really need is immediate, accessible, short-term care. The new GuideLink Center in Iowa City is meant to provide exactly that, without overly criminalizing or medicalizing the patient.

“What we’re trying to do is incorporate an integrative, kind of collaborative model here to create…it’s called an access center, but a way to look at it is like an urgent care, behavioral health, substance abuse disorder center,” said Executive Director Abbey Ferenzi.

The center is slated to begin serving some behavioral health patients beginning Feb. 15, with the goal of ramping up substance use services as staff and providers get their bearings. Ultimately, the facility will operate around the clock, equipped to serve both walk-in patients, those brought in by family or friends, and those referred by other crisis support organizations, regardless of their ability to pay.

“Individuals can either…they might be escorted by law enforcement, they might come via the mobile crisis team, or they might walk through the front door,” Ferenzi said. “And the idea is to meet them in the moment, provide immediate care and an assessment and meet their needs with whatever is going on that’s brought them there.”

Services will include rapid assessment, stabilization and treatment for those in acute distress, 23-hour crisis observation beds, crisis stabilization beds for up to five days, onsite sobering and detox units, and referrals to ongoing resources.

The facility is the result of a years-long collaboration between the Johnson County Board of Supervisors and local government officials throughout the county, as well as social service organizations like Shelter House and CommUnity (formerly The Crisis Center), and health care providers at AbbeHealth Services, Prelude Behavioral Services, Mercy Iowa City and the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

Reynolds and Garcia heralded the facility as an innovative, patient-centered approach to care in a state where roughly half of residents live in a mental health professional shortage area, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. In March of 2018, Reynolds signed a bill into law mandating the creation of six such regional access centers.

“This is a behavioral health urgent care facility that’s really put in place to really take care of the whole person,” Reynolds said Thursday. “It’s what we need to do. It’s the right thing to do.”

Providers say lowering barriers to access and providing an array of services and referrals even on a walk-in basis will help reach more families in need, especially at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is spurring its own “shadow pandemic” of mental illness.

“How do you meet someone, a young mom, where she is? How do you align those services so you support her to live her best life and ultimately her children as well?” Garcia said. “And so here, this is that concept, this is that model, live.”

“I’m excited to partner with you,” she told the facility staff.

In the years since Reynolds signed the bill into law, local officials faced uncertainties around to what extent the state would provide funding for the facilities and reimbursements for the treatment provided.

GuideLink representatives told the officials Thursday they’ll need more financial and policy support from the state to make centers like this sustainable long-term.

“Speaking to financial sustainability and viability, I think that’s one area where we certainly can use some state support and state advocacy, even to leverage existing funding sources,” said the facility’s Medical Director Monika Jindal.

Lance Clemsen, chair of the facility’s Executive & Steering Committee, echoed those concerns.

“I do want to emphasize: no [profit] margin, no mission. That’s what I lose a lot of sleep about moving forward. We think we can do it,” he told the state officials. “But we really need you guys as partners.”