Lifeways, a community mental health provider that has served Umatilla County for 14 years, is protesting the county’s decision to award a contract to a new mental health and addiction services provider.
The Ontario-based provider, which operates in much of Eastern Oregon and Idaho, sent a letter to Umatilla County on Wednesday, June 2, protesting the county’s move to appoint Community Counseling Solutions as its new provider. Lifeways and CCS were the only two organizations that responded to the county’s request for a proposal for a new provider to handle both mental health and addiction services.
In an email to the East Oregonian, Liz Johnsen, chief operating officer for Lifeways, did not answer questions about the appeal, but said, “Lifeways will be issuing a formal press release regarding the protest.” She added that Lifeways’ protest “is based on our review of the proposal CCS submitted.”
The county board of commissioners voted on May 26, in agreement with a unanimous recommendation from a five-person committee, to award the contract to Community Counseling Solutions, a Heppner-based behavioral health provider serving four counties, over Lifeways. The committee was made up of an educator, law enforcement staff and county employees, including Umatilla County Commissioner John Shafer.
County officials are in the process of reviewing the letter from Lifeways. Shafer referred all questions about the protest to Doug Olsen, the county’s legal counsel. Olsen did not respond to multiple calls requesting comment.
Lifeways employs more than 120 people in the county, most of whom are county residents, Johnsen has said. She has voiced concerns over how the change in providers will affect Lifeways employees and patients but so far has declined to comment on how the change will impact the several facilities Lifeways operates in the county, including Aspen Springs in Hermiston and McNary Place in Umatilla.
Kimberly Lindsay, executive director for CCS, has said Lifeways employees have been reaching out to her to discuss their employment options.
The move makes Community Counseling Solutions the county’s central provider for mental health and substance abuse services. Those services used to be divided between the county’s own alcohol and drug treatment provider and Lifeways, which handled mental health.
The change came through a growing consensus that patients in crisis often fall under both categories at once, prompting the county to put out a request for proposals for a community mental health provider to combine these services.
In May, Lifeways reopened the former Aspen Springs Psychiatric Hospital in Hermiston as a secure residential treatment facility after closing in April due to staffing challenges made worse by the pandemic. The facility, which housed patients in need of acute psychiatric care, was open for seven months before the change in care.
County officials and Lifeways have not answered what will happen to Aspen Springs during the transition in mental health providers. Johnsen has voiced concerns about what this transition will mean for patients, but county officials and CCS have said they are confident the transition will be smooth.