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Mar 22

Celebrating Two Years of the Mental Health Access Center

Posted on March 22, 2023 at 1:32 PM by Britt Nielsen

Exterior of the Mental Health Access Center

On March 9, 2023, the Linn County Mental Health Access Center celebrated its two-year anniversary. Access Center Director Erin Foster took time to reflect on its beginnings and looks forward to the future in this guest blog post about the milestone:

Two years ago, our doors were not yet open to walk-ins and the thought of law enforcement bringing individuals they encountered while on patrol to the Access Center seemed like a distant goal. The first few days after opening found us with three staff working with the single patient, while striving to create an environment where those who found their way to us felt safe, secure, and comfortable to work on their needs and find their way back to their lives prior to crisis. We focused so much on paint color, triage rooms, and beds for the Access Center – things to make the patient experience the best it could be – that when we decided to have a pizza party the first Friday after opening, the realization of overlooking little things like a pizza cutter and pan started the first of many emergency trips to Wal-Mart.   

Since opening, we have learned so much about what five organizations with one goal in mind can do for those in need, both in our own community and beyond. In two years, we have conducted more than 2,000 triages and consultations with patients, broken records month after month of placements into programs on site, and spent countless hours educating and advocating out in the community to make sure those who needed us, knew we existed. 

As mentioned before, the environment at the Access Center and the patient experience are always top of mind. We collect feedback from individuals served through a post discharge follow-up survey. Patients answer eight standardized questions and can provide feedback in a free text field. We review the submissions every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for negative feedback, evaluate concerns raised, and troubleshoot possible process improvement with providers. Collecting these surveys not only allows us to see where we can improve but highlights the impact we are making on our patients. 

Here are a few examples of patient feedback:

“Thank you so much for the hospitality and kindness. It was a Godsend. I don’t know how different my life would be if this wasn’t in place for me. Thank goodness you’re here.” 

“I feel really good about my plan going forward and appreciate all of the different services and resources I got and got connected to while here.”

However, not every day at the Access Center brings joy and success. Providing services in a state that has ranked as low as 47th in the nation for access to mental health care comes with its array of challenges. Although Access Centers fall under Chapter 25 of Iowa Code with a mandate that all Mental Health Regions must designate at least one Mental Health Access Center within their region, there is no sustainable funding mechanism in place at this time for these Centers to continue to thrive in their communities. Unfunded mandates create even more challenges in the already existing thin mental health system existing in Iowa. 

Together with low reimbursement rates and arguments over who is responsible for funding, Access Centers also face the challenge of providing BOTH mental health and substance use disorder services under one roof, which in the state of Iowa, are still viewed as two separate conditions. Access Center Directors were hopeful with the blending of Iowa Department of Public Health and Department of Human Services that this barrier would resolve itself with the joining of the two funding sources, but so far that hasn’t happened. Currently, providers can only bill for one service within substance use and mental health care despite offering treatments for both areas. This forces the patient to decide which treatment is their top priority and creates barriers to service for those in need.

Regardless of these barriers that seem daunting at times, Access Center staff come to work each day with the willingness to trudge through the system because we have seen firsthand the positive outcomes that can occur within these walls. The last two years have been amazing and there’s so much more yet to come!   

More information about the Mental Health Access Center and its services can be found on the Linn County website.