Melanie Dallas: The value of a comprehensive, community-based safety net

Melanie Dallas

During the 2019 legislative session, the Georgia General Assembly passed House Bill 514, creating a statewide Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission. The 24-member panel includes representatives from the legislature, justice system, law enforcement and treatment providers, among others, and met for the first time last month at the Georgia Regional Hospital in Atlanta.

At this inaugural meeting, commission members heard two presentations that explained the critical role of the state’s Community Service Boards (agencies like Highland Rivers Health) in Georgia’s behavioral health care system, with many key facts worth repeating here.

The first presentation, by representatives of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD), Georgia’s state-level behavioral health authority, described the agency’s function in very basic terms: establishing and overseeing a statewide service delivery system for the prevention and treatment of mental illness in adults, serious emotional disturbances in children and youth and substance use disorders in adults and youth.

State officials went on to describe DBHDD’s three-tier classification of the state’s 200-plus behavioral health providers. Tier 1, what the state calls Comprehensive Community Providers, includes all of Georgia’s 24 Community Service Boards (CSBs). There are two words in this classification that should be recognized.

The first is comprehensive. CSBs like Highland Rivers are front-line providers of what DBHDD defines as core services — crisis intervention and stabilization, individual and family counseling, psychiatric evaluation, peer support and much more.

But Highland Rivers, like most Georgia CSBs, also provides what the state describes as specialty services — high intensity and longer-term programs such as assertive community treatment, intensive case management and residential services, as well as supported employment, youth clubhouses and prevention services.

The other word in the state’s Tier 1 definition that should be recognized — community — was the focus of a second presentation to the Behavioral Health Commission by my colleague Cindy Levi, CEO of Avita Community Partners (a CSB in northeast Georgia), on behalf of the Georgia Association of Community Service Boards.

One of Cindy’s key points is that CSBs deliver their services in the community — in outpatient clinics, crisis centers, schools, courts, jails, people's homes, emergency rooms and homeless centers. Highland Rivers delivers services in all of these locations, and many more, in order to remove barriers and meet people where they are.

Toward that end, Cindy noted that CSBs also partner with numerous organizations in their community to help serve individuals in all circumstances. In northwest Georgia, our agency partners with hospitals, churches, social service agencies, law enforcement agencies, accountability courts, landlords, vocational agencies and many others. We not only work in the community but with the community.

Finally, an important point in both presentations, and one I will emphasize again here, is that community service boards are Georgia’s behavioral health safety net. CSBs exist to provide critical behavioral health services to people and families that otherwise would not have access to them — those who are low income, uninsured, underinsured or with Medicaid or Medicare. In fact, Highland Rivers prioritizes these individuals to fulfill our purpose as a safety net provider.

Ultimately, by providing a comprehensive set of treatment and recovery services, and providing them in the communities where people live, community service boards help ensure that behavioral health services are available to everyone, regardless of their income, living arrangements or needs. There are simply no other organizations that provide as many behavioral health services to as many people as the state’s community service boards. That is the true value CSBs provide to Georgia.

As we move into a new year and decade, we look forward to continuing to work closely with our community partners, fellow CSBs, state lawmakers and the Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission, to ensure affordable, convenient and high quality behavioral health services remain available to every Georgian.

Melanie Dallas is a licensed professional counselor and CEO of Highland Rivers Health, which provides treatment and recovery services for mental health, addiction and intellectual developmental disabilities in a 12-county region of northwest Georgia that includes Whitfield and Murray counties.

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