New ADAMHS Board CEO Testifies to HHSA Committee

The September 20, 2017 meeting of the Cuyahoga Council Health, Human Services and Aging Committee, was attended by all members of the committee and Council President Dan Brady.

The meeting featured a presentation by Valeria Harper, the incoming chief executive officer of the Alcohol, Drug Addiction, and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS) Board. She was joined by Chief Financial Officer Frank Brickner; Scott Osiecki, Chief of External Affairs; and Chief Quality Officer John Garrity, Ph.D. Ms. Harper opened with remarking that she is in her 52nd day as CEO, though she previously served as Chief Operating Officer and has been involved in the work of the ADAMHS board for many years.

During her hour-long presentation, Ms. Harper walked the committee through an overview of the variety of ADAMHS Board projects, including projects highlighting prevention, individual and group counseling, and treatment through both therapy and psychotropic medicinal means. Ms. Harper touched on various programs including Project Aware, a school-based program that is currently being utilized in Parma, Euclid, and Lakewood. She highlighted some of the difficulties that the agency has faced, including a shortage in psychiatrists that treat children, and the feverish escalation of the opioid epidemic. She also highlighted the St. Vincent Charity Hospital Psychiatric Emergency Department, one of only two ED’s in the state with specific resources meant to handle those who are experiencing a behavior health emergency. This resource is especially helpful for those who are recently returning from prison, and may not have access to the same medication for mental conditions that they did while incarcerated.

Ms. Harper discussed how the agency is focusing not just on treatment, but also on the importance of promoting mental health, and prevention of mental illness, especially for children. A portion of the presentation was dedicated to describing a new effort meant to promote faith-based approaches to mental health and addiction needs. Currently, ADAMHS funds five organizations that are utilizing the faith-based approach, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Greater Cleveland, among others.

Ms. Harper explained that there are some areas in need of improvement. For example, there is a facility that was meant to serve as a co-ed residential building for young adults to provide peer-support for each other as they are undergoing treatment. It was soon understood that a co-ed approach would not be the wisest choice for young adults in that situation, and the decision was made to make that facility male-only. Young women, especially those with children, have other facilities that can cater to their specific needs as they go through the treatment program. Ms. Harper shared that the agency undertakes extensive marketing strategies including social and traditional media.

Lastly, Ms. Harper discussed some of the workforce development programs that ADAMHS has undergone. In partnership with other workforce organizations, the ADAMHS Board shared that they have an above average rate of individuals who get a steady job in the workforce after undergoing treatment for a mental illness.

Looking to the future, Ms. Harper said that the organization is working on a centralized intake portal whereby individuals would be able to call one place and one number, and be connected with the appropriate person or organization that can help them. She said that the ADAMHS Board also wants to cut down on waiting lists for treatment facilities, so that those that need help are able to get it in a timely manner.

During the second hour of the meeting, council members had several questions that covered a broad range of topics, including a question from Councilwoman Nan Baker that sought to understand the difference between mental health and mental illness. Councilman Scott Tuma inquired about how the ADAMHS board is able to avoid duplication of efforts, especially with other county agencies such as Child and Family Services, which is also seeking to engage with young people to promote mental health. Ms. Harper responded that she has an open line of communication with other county agencies including Child and Family Services, Job & Family Services, Invest In Children, and the Court system to ensure that where there is opportunity to collaborate and be efficient with resources. Committee Chairwoman Yvonne Conwell also wanted the leadership of ADAMHS to continue to ensure parity in treatment, so that women are able to get access to the same type of mental health treatment as men. Even though the needs may be different, especially for those with children, women’s needs must still be high as an institutional priority. This point was echoed in comments from Councilwomen Shontel Brown and Nan Baker.

Ms. Harper testified that the organization still encounters waiting lists for individuals who are in need of housing during treatment. Councilwoman Brown asked for Ms. Harper to explain, when encountering waiting lists, how the agency prioritizes who to place, where and when. Ms. Harper replied that there is strict criteria for placement in housing, including a limitation on sex offenders being placed in residential housing. Councilman Dale Miller said that it is important to identify methods for how to treat those who are on waiting lists. Ms. Harper said that she is looking at a program where specific coaches are paired with those who are on waiting lists, to offer individualized information that could be used while on the waiting list.  Councilman Miller also wanted to ensure that treatment for citizens is the same, overcoming racial and socioeconomic disparities. Ms. Harper said that education was a key component to overcoming cultural barriers in mental health support.

Towards the latter part of the questioning, Council President Brady underscored how important the ADAMHS Board is to the overall health of the county, and expressed concern with the escalating opioid epidemic. He asked Ms. Harper if there is any best practices currently being implemented to stem the epidemic, and emphasized that council would be open to whatever resources are necessary to meet those needs. Ms. Harper said that the agency is conferring with experts to identify the best strategy to combat the issue.

The meeting concluded with Ms. Harper sharing the statistics about the total number of clients served for addiction, as well as those treated for mental health services, and a brief overview of the revenue that supports ADAMHS, including $39 million from the two HHS levies.