The Center for Mental Health to merge with Axis Health System; move expected to increase services and access to care
A first of its kind merger for Colorado is expected to equate to more mental health services — as well as more affordable access and a broader range of services.
After lengthy discussions, The Center for Mental Health, which serves Montrose and nearby counties, decided to merge with Axis Health System, a federally qualified health center. Merger completion is expected by June of 2022.
“I hope it’s going to give us a lot deeper resources and more staff, just a better system for people in our region,” The Center’s CEO Shelly Spalding said Wednesday, Sept. 1.
Spalding will become the president of the merged entities. Shelly Burke, now CEO of Axis, will become the CEO of the newly formed endeavor, which retains the name Axis Health System.
Axis Health System currently serves the Southwest corner of the state as a federally qualified health center, with locations in Montezuma, Dolores, La Plata, Archuleta and San Juan counties.
The Center for Mental Health serves Montrose, Delta, Gunnison, San Miguel, Hinsdale and Ouray counties.
The merger is being touted as the first in Colorado of a community mental health center (The Center for Mental Health) and a federally qualified health center, or FQHC.
An FQHC provides services to people regardless of insurance status and accepts all plans; these types of facilities also offer a sliding fee based on income.
In the Montrose region, River Valley Family Health Center is an FQHC for medical, dental and integrated mental health services. Spalding said her board discussed with River Valley and other local “safety net” service providers how to boost service in the area.
“We actually have been talking about this for probably about a year now. We started out talking with ourselves, Axis Health, River Valley and Uncompahgre Medical Center (Norwood) — all of the safety net providers in our region,” Spalding said.
The conversations focused on how — given the multitude of changes in the health care system — to preserve safety-net health care for people with fewer resources.
The populations served are similar in terms of socio-economics and industry types.
“There’s just a lot of similarities in the regions. We have all worked together on different projects, probably over the last 10 years,” Spalding said.
From those discussions, boards began talking, considering whether a merger would make sense.
The verdict: “We thought yes, it really does,” she said.
“Our discussions were thoughtful, carefully considered and recognize that both organizations are important health care resources for our respective communities,” Burke said in a provided statement.
“The decision is a result of our shared view that the best health care delivery will require increased scale, enhanced administrative capacity and better coverage capacity. The new organization will be an even better resource for our communities and allow us to innovate and evolve as we continue to respond to emerging health care needs.”
The Center and Axis between them have about 460 employees and the combined organizations will serve about 19,000 patients.
“I think the biggest thing it will help with is, we all struggle with staffing. We have staffing shortages all over the state,” Spalding said.
“It will allow us to have a greater bench depth for staff growth and development.”
More staff means more specialists available and hence, more speciality care options.
“With the pandemic, the stress on people, mental health and substance abuse needs just continue to rise. This will just allow for more resources to address those needs,” Spalding said.
Staffing has been a challenge for some time in the field — statewide, there are about 1,000 openings in the community mental health system.
“There are rising needs and definitely staffing shortages across Colorado,” Spalding said, but reiterated the merger should help shore that up for The Center and Axis by combining their staff and service.
The entities are looking at grant funding to help cover the transition costs; most of those costs have to do with legal fees and branding. The Center is retaining all of its physical locations.
State and federal approvals are expected later this year; no disruption of services is anticipated — it should be “business as usual” for patients, Spalding said.
“I think Axis has a really good reputation and the two of them together can probably be stronger,” Montrose County Commissioner Sue Hansen said. “Hopefully, that will be really good for the treatment world.”
Spalding looks at it all as a good step forward.
“I’m so excited at the opportunity this could bring for our region. We appreciate the continued community support,” she said.