A Marijuana Tax Sparked Eagle County's Mental Health Care Overhaul. Is It Working?

Jan 31, 2019

It's 9 a.m. and the Eagle County paramedics building is already bustling with activity. The sheriff's department just called. They need help with a potentially suicidal person.

A group of four mental health crisis clinicians huddles around a conference table cluttered with laptops and coffee mugs. They're discussing the morning's situation.

"We want to spend time with them and just talk to them versus just doing a risk assessment and leaving, you know," clinician John Medveckis said while putting on his cap and gloves. "We just want to create a relationship."

Medveckis is part of the Hope Center Eagle River Valley. It's a new 24/7 program funded partially by the county's year-old, 2.5 percent sales tax on recreational marijuana.

The center's clinicians will go anywhere within the county to provide on-the-spot counseling — Costco, Loaf 'N Jug, individual homes — and all for free.

Last year, we reported that Eagle County was getting ready to tax marijuana and use the revenue to offer more mental health services to its residents — something people living in Eagle, Vail and other towns nearby said they desperately wanted.

KUNC's Matt Bloom recently returned to see what programs have been funded and what challenges still lie ahead for the rural community.

 

Julia Goldburt, another clinician at the Hope Center, said her main job is to keep people experiencing a crisis out of the hospital whenever possible — a valuable service given the area's lack of resources.

Julia Goldbert, mental health crisis clinician with the Hope Center Eagle River Valley.
Credit Matt Bloom / KUNC

"There's like, no homeless shelters. It's really hard to get someone into counseling. Most of the therapists charge a lot or are fully booked," she said. "So there's a lot of challenges."

Once they respond, the Hope Center places patients under their watch for three days. More than 200 people have called since the center opened last October.

Progress is slow, but steady

A year ago, the county had zero public funding going toward the issue of mental health.

Now it has about $1.6 million. Here's a breakdown of what they've raised at the local level since January 2018:

About $400,000 has trickled in through the marijuana tax. That's less than the $1.2 million local leaders had hoped for, but it is making an impact.

Based on recommendations from a series of public meetings, the money has been distributed to several projects, including the Hope Center. Of the $400,000, most has gone toward hiring 6 school-based psychologists in elementary, middle and high schools in the area.

But even with the marijuana tax rate going up this year, leaders like County Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney say they need to do more.

"I would like to say yes, it is (getting better)," she said. "I know of some stories where it is, but I also know some stories where it's not. So, it's still a matter of connecting people to the services and creating more services for people."

The area saw another record number of suicides last year, local leaders say. That's why they're looking at sources of funding beyond the tax to fund bigger projects for the county's more than 50,000 residents.

 

Chris Lindley, Eagle County's public health director.
Credit Matt Bloom / KUNC

To make up ground, the county pulled $500,000 from its emergency reserves last spring.

Chris Lindley, the county's director of public health, has been courting local nonprofits, state lawmakers and private foundations to buy in to the county's ultimate vision: a robust system of behavioral health providers and a lower suicide rate.

"We're not trying to patch this up for a year or two — we want long-term solutions in this community," he said.

But the price tag for such a vision is incredibly high.

To do what they really want, including constructing new walk-in clinics and hiring more school-based counselors, Lindley can only guess at a price. And that's at least 10 times what they have now.

"I don't think in a year we'll certainly be there," he said. "But I think in a year, we're gonna have the infrastructure in place to raise the funds. We'll know how much we need to raise. And we're gonna have a strategy to do it."

 

A sign greets visitors in the town of Eagle.
Credit Matt Bloom / KUNC

Working with what they have

Back at the Hope Center, John Medveckis is returning from the 9 a.m. call.

"How was it?," asked Julia Goldbert, who'd stayed behind.

"It was good," Medveckis said.

The person he met with was depressed but wasn't in immediate danger.

"With this individual, we decided that they did not meet criteria for hospitalization and then we went to our safety plan," he said.

That involves a series of daily phone or in-person check-ins. Ultimately, the staff wants to guide patients toward long-term care - something they hope to see more of in the coming years.

The center has already gotten to the point where they need more help.

"We'd like to hire two more full-time clinicians and also a full-time supervisor and lead person," he said. "And ideally an intensive outpatient therapist."

Towards the end of the afternoon, another call comes in.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call Colorado's 24/7 suicide prevention hotline at 844-493-8255 or text "TALK" to 38255.

Medveckis and another clinician rush into a private room. On the floor just outside the door, they flip on a white noise machine.

It's meant to muffle the conversation inside and ensure privacy. They do it for every call.

Even though the ultimate vision for a better mental health care system in Eagle County is still far from coming to fruition, the team is doing what they can to get another person the help they need.