Mental health facilities to merge

BY BEN MARKS | MAY 06, 2015 5:00 AM

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By July 1, the Iowa City Community Health Center might be no more.

Instead, if everything goes according to plan, it will merge and become a part of the Abbe Center for Community Mental Health in Cedar Rapids.

Last week, the Board of Directors for the Community Mental Health Center for Mid-Eastern Iowa of Iowa City voted to merge with Abbe Center.

“The Iowa City and Cedar Rapids corridor are not becoming distinct entities anymore,” said Stephen Trefz, executive director of the Iowa City Community Health Center. “What we’re seeing is by joining there could be one agency to serve people in both those areas.”

Trefz said the costless merger is expected to save both organizations money in the short term, as it will consolidate resources, increase efficiency, and cut down on duplication of services.

Abbe currently serves a little less than 10,000 people a year and the Iowa City center currently serves around 3,000.

After the merger is completed, Trefz said customers will hopefully not see any changes to services or physical location.

While immediate services aren’t expected to be impacted, Cindy Kaestner, executive director of Abbe Center, said in the future they’re hoping expand to a larger area.

“We’re hoping by combining our resources, we’ll be able to develop more community-based services,” she said.

Both directors said while the current shift in state Medicaid is a factor in their service, it’s not the reason for the merger.

Currently the way health care is delivered in the state is undergoing a significant transformation.

In a plan to stop what many call the unsustainable growth of Medicaid in Iowa, Gov. Terry Branstad announced a plan in February to hire private businesses to manage the program.

“Medicaid has been growing in this state at three times the rate of the rest of state government,” Rep. David Heaton, R-Mount Pleasant said. “It’s a Pacman, literally eating away the resources of our budget.”

Legislators however, many of them Democrats, disagree that privatization is the solution to the issue.

“I think it’s a disaster, I don’t think turning this over to private companies is a good idea,” Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said. “I don’t think it’s going to save money, and I think it’s going to result in people not getting services they need — people with mental health issues, seniors, children."

According to state data, Iowa spends $1.9 billion each year providing Medicaid services to 560,000 people.

Rather than the shift in Medicaid then, Trefz said the reason behind the merger has been a larger overall merging of services statewide.

“In Iowa, what we’re seeing in the larger healthcare landscape is organizations joining together,” Trefz said. “Hospitals buying private practices and really forming an organization that can really integrate care from hospitalization to outpatient care, and that’s what’s really driving this.”

Rather than having a series of separate and private doctors, hospitals, and care facilities, Trefz said, one integrated unit could provide much better care for patients.

“Let’s have that all be one larger organization that can share information, share resources to provide better care to an individual,” he said.

The merger has not been finalized, as Abbe’s Board of Directors will not vote on it until the middle of this month. Abbe Inc., the parent company, will vote on the matter in June.

As the merger proceeds, Kaestner said all employees that currently work at both mental health-care facilities will be retained. However, she said there will be organizational restructuring.

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