Interest piques in South Portland mental health partnership

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SOUTH PORTLAND — For nearly three years, officials at the Community Counseling Center in Portland struggled to find a way to keep its doors open while continuing to provide quality care to patients.

Last year, the nonprofit group finalized an agreement with Maine Mental Health Partners to consolidate administrative costs like human resources, information technology, billing and payroll services.

That agreement, which went into effect in July, allowed Community Counseling to reduce its operating costs by 11 percent by joining the partnership. CCC also found savings through bulk purchasing of insurance, fuel and office supplies.

“With the crisis in health care and the state budget cuts, I think we would have been looking at closing our doors,” Community Counseling Center CEO Leslie Brancato said. “(The partnership) is every exciting. Very visionary.”

Brancato said CCC could save about $600,000 a year through the partnerships. 

That sort of partnership is generating more interest among health and human service agencies, which are struggling to maintain services in light of funding cuts from the state.

In February, Mid-Coast Mental Health Center, which last year served more than 4,000 patients in Rockland, Belfast and Camden, signed onto the partnership. MMCH CEO Todd Goodwin said it’s too early to predict the savings.

“There is no doubt in my mind there will be savings,” Goodwin said. “These different organizations coming together to think critically and rethink about how we do things, rather than operating in silos, is a tremendous benefit and asset to folks who these services.”  

Maine Mental Health Partners CEO Dennis King said the partnership has exceeded his expectations within the first year.

“The receptivity to the idea has been more than we expected,” King said. “The reality of implementing such a system is fraught with both excitement and frustration.”

Maine Mental Health Partners is a nonprofit formed in November 2008 that promotes and maintains a high-quality, integrated system of mental health treatment providers and services.

The partnership was developed to create greater efficiencies in Maine’s mental health system by growing a network of nonprofit treatment providers who share a common vision and clinical philosophy.

Members seek to provide patients with effective, coordinated treatment when they need it and at the best cost.

The group works under the umbrella of MaineHealth, which operates several hospitals and medical laboratories throughout the state. Partners include Spring Harbor Hospital, Spring Harbor Community Services, Community Counseling Center and Integrated Behavioral Healthcare.

Beyond reducing costs, MMHP Spokesperson Donna Murphy said the partnership also allows agencies to standardize the services provided to patients by implementing practices that have a track record of success.

“We all subscribe to evidence-based practices that are proven to have positive outcomes for people,” Murphy said. “That reduces the time spent in more expensive care, like emergency rooms and psychiatric beds. It’s really coordinating services across our agencies.”

Brancado said that coordination makes it easier for patients transitioning out of hospital-based programs to community-based settings.

“We can do more of a warm hand-off,” she said.

King said the group is currently negotiating with a couple of other agencies interested in joining the partnership, which is becoming more attractive, especially in this economic environment.

Gail Wilkerson, MMHP’s vice president of strategy and system development, said mental health services in greater Portland are projected to lose $1.4 million in next year’s state budget – a cut that could affect up to 600 patients.

“We’re proposing Maine Mental Health Partners may be a better solution than indiscriminate cuts across the board,” she said.

Randy Billings  can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or