published Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Haslam picks 1 agency for crisis services

Johnson Center now sole state provider


by Chris Carroll

Gov. Bill Haslam has named Johnson Mental Health Center as Hamilton County’s sole provider of state-subsidized crisis services, slighting Fortwood Center in the process.

Center dispatchers are trained to talk people down from dangerous situations such as suicide or domestic violence that could lead to jail or hospitalization.

Historically, both agencies have provided crisis hot lines and other mental health options to Hamilton County residents, using the Tennessee River to divide the county into northern and southern service areas, according to Larry Thompson, chief operating officer of Johnson Mental Health Center.

But that policy changed under Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. As part of a push to consolidate and streamline government, one agency lost state funding.

In selecting Johnson Mental Health, the state considered “toll-free telephone triage capability and intervention,” future plans for technology use and documentation of crisis call information, records show.

Fortwood Center CEO Earl Medley did not return several calls seeking comment.

A news release from the state said both agencies “will be joining forces” to ensure a smooth transition.

Grant Lawrence, spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Mental Health, said the realignment cleared about $45,000 to be reinvested back into the crisis system.

“As to your question about Fortwood staff losing jobs — [Johnson Mental Health Center] is interviewing the two full-time employees of Fortwood with the intention of keeping all staff,” Lawrence wrote in an email.

Johnson Mental Health Center will maintain a 24-hour crisis hot line for Hamilton County residents in dire need, Thompson said.

Calls into Fortwood’s current crisis number will “just roll to Johnson Mental Health Center,” Thompson wrote in an email.

Fortwood took 3,620 Hamilton County calls in one year, according to the latest state figures.

Thompson said Johnson Mental Health Center receives 4,500 local calls a year, but the state did not confirm the figure.

The change takes effect July 1.

Lawrence, the state spokesman, said that while call volume has increased significantly, the state hasn’t increased crisis center funding since the system’s inception in 1991.

Staff writer Andy Sher contributed reporting to this story.

Contact Chris Carroll at ccarroll@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6610.

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