© 2024 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

‘Returning to basics’: McLean County reevaluates behavioral health efforts

Government Center building
Emily Bollinger
The Government Center in downtown Bloomington.

When McLean County Board Chair Catherine Metsker stepped into the role last year and led the first two behavioral health advisory group meetings during her tenure, she said she felt “uncomfortable” watching them unfold. Between 2016 and now, meetings had somehow become “status reports,” she said, rather than collaborative conversations between service providers.

“I looked down and I could see that people didn’t feel engaged,” she explained. “You could just see it in their faces, you could see it in the lack of interaction between them.”

Metsker doesn't credit this to any entity, but to a lack of structure, which she’s tackling head-on. Her self-identified “ambitious goal” is to formalize policies and procedures for the Behavioral Health Coordinating Council (BHCC) — for the first time in its history — and she wants to do it in under six months.

She’s told WGLT before that it will take “systemic” change, so she’s put meetings on pause for the BHCC.

“Hopefully it will move quickly,” she said. “It has to move quickly because we cannot be on a pause.”

Programs are continuing, she elaborated, and the Behavioral Health Department is still working. But the longer the county takes to get this done, the more time there is to miss out on opportunities, like grants.

“Because we don’t have a group ready to go,” she said. “And we have to have a group ready to go.”

How the BHCC formed

In theory, that group is the BHCC, but not as it exists currently.

Former County Board Chair John McIntyre formed the council, and his vision, as current Board Chair Metsker put it, was to bring stakeholders together who could “identify, build and establish large efforts that create systematic changes to the existing mental health programs and delivery systems.”

Leaders from area service providers, the City of Bloomington, the Town of Normal, and the county joined the group, but Metsker said the “vision was not formalized with written strategy, structure, role definition, processes, or procedures.”

As a result of that and perhaps some miscommunications between members and the county between then and now, meetings became less productive.

‘Returning to basics’

Cassy Taylor
Emily Bollinger
Cassy Taylor

County Administrator Cassy Taylor said she sees the move as “returning to basics” for the BHCC.

Over time, Taylor said people started perceiving the BHCC as the body that oversees tens of millions in Shared Sales Tax dollars funneled to the county from Bloomington and Normal. That's not the case.

Taylor said the tax agreement was forged in 2016 to start a fund not just for mental health, but public safety.

“And the public safety side gets left off, because people think of it as efforts of the BHCC in the Mental Health Action Plan (MHAP),” Taylor explained.

Only a fraction of sales tax dollars have been dedicated to mental health-specific expenses. More than half of the total sales tax money is to be used or has been used on the Law & Justice Center expansion, criminal justice services and updating the county’s database for tracking individuals’ movements across area public safety agencies.

Right now, mental health reserves total around $3 million. While the BHCC can and has advised on the spending of that reserve, the council's overall function is to improve mental health efforts in the county — independent of how resulting programs will be funded, Taylor said.

Taylor pointed to the youth mental health initiative McLean County System of Care (MCSOC) as an example of how the BHCC implemented change without using tax dollars at all (it’s funded through a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration grant).

'We have the right people'

Metsker and Taylor said the decision to hit pause is not because of the group's work or its members. They both commended the BHCC and called the experts vital to the county's mental health efforts.

There have been “lots of successes” from the group, Taylor added, including the Frequent Utilizer Systems Engagement program (FUSE), the annual Behavioral Health Forum, and the Central Illinois Bridge Academy.

County Board Chair Catherine Metsker
Courtesy of Catherine Metsker
McLean County Board Chair Catherine Metsker

Metsker said the reset is to ensure BHCC meetings effectively use area experts' time.

To that end, Metsker said she intends to keep the same people in the conversation. That includes the funders — Bloomington and Normal — and service providers.

“I really believe we have the right people, we just need to help them know what role they have… besides being experts,” she said.

Metsker emphasized that structure is key since the BHCC’s guiding document, the MHAP, is revisited every three years. It also contains 54 action points that can change on a whim. She highlighted the pandemic as a time when priorities shifted.

However, Metsker added that it was somewhat premature to talk about how the BHCC might look once this is all over. For example, if meetings will still be quarterly, or if new members will be invited to the table.

Another unknown is whether the county will look to use mental health dollars to fund existing programs. It happened for the first time with YWCA Stepping Stones rape crisis center last month, but County Board and BHCC Member Susan Schafer said at the time that ideally the county’s money should be used for new innovative solutions.

Metsker said she’s not ruling it out, but she’s going to look to experts within the BHCC to guide her on whether that type of move makes sense.

She added that outside consultants will likely play a large role in answering some of these questions, but it’s too soon for them to enter the mix.

For now, Metsker said the county is still strategizing.

“We have to get our plan more grounded before we go to anybody else,” Metsker explained.

At the same time this is all happening, the county is looking for a new Director of Behavioral Health Coordination to lead the BHCC. Kevin McCall, who has held the role for just under two years, resigned. His last day is April 19.

However, Taylor said this should not impact any “efforts for resetting.”

“That will not have a negative impact.”

The funders’ outlooks

Meanwhile, Metsker said she’s keeping Bloomington and Normal informed of her plans.

Bloomington City Manager Tim Gleason said Metsker reached out to Bloomington and Normal almost immediately about her decision to pause BHCC meetings, because he thinks “the initial story took a direction that was unintended.” Metsker statement announcing the reset at the March 8 BHCC meeting was brief, and there was speculation afterward. Gleason said she “set the record straight” with the mayors and city managers.

“I think the possibility for more, better, improved — that day is coming very soon,” Gleason said.

Metsker’s changes will hopefully answer questions for BHCC and the funders, he added, noting that BHCC members themselves had been raising questions about their roles (which happened largely during the March 8 meeting).

“I very much appreciate the opportunity that she is taking in trying to clarify that,” he said.

Normal Mayor Chris Koos said he thinks the “committee has struggled with a few issues.”

“I’ve always felt that the plan needed more definable outcomes and ways to measure those outcomes,” he said, adding that he thinks Metsker’s plans align with his.

Koos said he hopes Council Member Kevin McCarthy, who's also on the BHCC, is included in conversations surrounding the reset.

Normal City Manager Pam Reece said she’s totally on board with Metsker’s decision and thinks now is even a good time to reassess considering it’s been over five years since the BHCC started.

“What are their procedures? Are they an oversight body? And what is their role?” she said are reasonable questions to ask. “We always want to make sure they’re on the right path.”

She called Metsker’s timeline “very aggressive,” adding that she’s not concerned even if the BHCC misses its June meeting while this planning happens, particularly since programs will remain unaffected.

We depend on your support to keep telling stories like this one. WGLT’s mental health coverage is made possible in part by Report For America and Chestnut Health Systems. Please take a moment to donate now and add your financial support to fully fund this growing coverage area so we can continue to serve the community.

Melissa Ellin is a reporter at WGLT and a Report for America corps member, focused on mental health coverage.