This article and photo first appeared in the Vail Daily on November 11, 2020.
Three years ago behavioral health resources in Eagle County were much harder to access.
Correspondingly, the programs that were available struggled for funding. But as 2021 approaches, it’s a far different landscape for local behavioral health services.
During a presentation to the Eagle County Board of Commissioners this week, members of the Eagle County Mental Health Advisory Council recapped the three-year journey that has resulted in local behavioral health funding that tops the $3 million mark annually. That money includes a $60 million, 10-year commitment from Vail Health through the organization it created — Eagle Valley Behavioral Health.
But back in 2017, before that commitment from Vail Health, Eagle County was one of the first entities to step forward with a funding proposal for mental health efforts. The county presented voters with a ballot question to charge a sales tax on recreational marijuana purchases. The measure passed resoundingly and collections began in 2018.
“The marijuana tax was the first big step in the right direction and a lot of things have happened since then,” said Avon Police Chief Greg Daly, a member of the county’s mental health council. “For me, it has been like night and day over the past two years.”
In 2018, the county marijuana tax netted $398,170. In 2019, collections grew to $658,354 and collections through August of 2020 are approximately $531,000. In addition to those revenues, the county kickstarted its mental health fund by contributing $500,000 to the effort back in 2018.
As they look ahead to 2021, members of the mental health council and the county commissioners must decide where to allocate an anticipated $650,000 from marijuana tax receipts. In many cases, the council’s recommendation is to put money in areas that have already proven to be successful.
As part of its mental health funding, the county established a 10-member council that recommends where the money should go. The council includes representatives from various programs, entities and facilities engaged in services, promotion and education.
At the onset of the program, the county signed several multi-year contracts to launch services. One of the first recommended expenditures in 2018 was $320,000 for school-based mental health counselors. In 2019 and 2020, that funding dipped to $240,000, reflecting the county’s long-term goal to have the school district take over the funding.
According to Eagle County Mental Health Coordinator Kim Goodrich, that remains the goal. “They (Eagle County Schools) would appreciate it if you would leave it at a high level ($240,000) at present,” she said.
Carrie Benway, representing The Hope Center of the Eagle River Valley, noted that the school-based mental health counselors administered through the Hope Center have been a welcome presence in local schools.
“One principal said there hasn’t been a day that’s gone by that a teacher hasn’t thanked him for having the Hope Center in the school,” Benway said.
The Hope Center itself is another program that has seen continued county mental health funding. The Hope Center offers a mental health hotline and partners with local law enforcement to provide on-scene counseling services. The introduction of the Hope Center program has been a game-changer, Daly said.
“From our (law enforcement) perspective, we are able to make sure a scene is safe,” Daly said. “But the big change is we are not placing a person in handcuffs for their own protection and then putting them in the back of a police car.”
Instead, Daly said, a Hope Center counselor provides triage service to help stabilize a person at the moment of crisis and then arrange for long-term behavioral health help.
In 2020, the Hope Center of the Eagle River Valley received $100,000 in county funding and that is slated to continue in 2021.
Jail-based mental health counselors are another program earmarked for continued funding. This effort received $80,000 from the county fund in 2020 with continued funding at that level eyed for 2021.
Daly noted that providing counseling to people while they are incarcerated at the county jail helps inmates address issues and reduces the chances that they will be repeat offenders once they leave the facility.
“We just get healthier as a community in a mental health way,” he said.
Big Picture Needs
While the county money kickstarted behavioral health finances locally, the large commitment from Vail Health in 2019 vastly changed the overall picture.
Dana Epperling of Eagle Valley Behavioral Health noted that year to date in 2020, the program has spent more than $3 million on local projects and programs.
“The collective impact that was started in Eagle County back in 2017 is working,” Epperling said. “It’s is only by working together and utilizing all of the resources available that we are making and significant impact on behavioral health.”
“The change here has been tremendous,” said Gary Schreiner of Mountain Family Health Centers. Schreiner is a member of the county’s mental health council. He noted the mental health services capacity in Eagle County has greatly improved over the past three years.
“It’s to the point that if anyone needs some behavioral health treatment, they can get it whether they can pay for it or not,” he said.
Chris Reider of Eagle Mind Springs said the thoughtful approach to expanding local behavioral health services has been integral to the county’s success. Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney urged the programs and organizations represented at this week’s meeting to continue that thoughtful effort.
“This has far exceeded our expectations from when we put the ballot issue out there,” she said. The challenge now, McQueeney offered, is to make sure the county money is allocated to areas where it can fill gaps and address unique needs.
McQueeney noted that grant funding exists for some local programs while others rely on the county dollars. Jail-based counselors, for example, depend on county dollars, she said.
In general, councilmembers said larger county contributions for multi-year programs are likely the best use of the marijuana tax receipts. It is easier for smaller programs to receive funding through Eagle Valley Behavioral Health because the requirements are less stringent than the regulations associated with government funding, they explained.
But even with the well-funded Vail Health effort, the county dollars are still critical, councilmembers stressed.
“It’s an overall, holistic approach we are taking to mental health,” Daly said.
Agnes Harakel, an Eagle woman who serves on the county mental health council and who has spent several years advocating for increased services as her family struggled to find help for her son who has been diagnosed as bipolar, had an even more descriptive assessment.
“It’s been a blessing,” she said.