BRADENTON — A state agency’s plan to change the administration of mental health and substance abuse services funding has raised red flags at Manatee Glens, Manatee County’s leading provider.
The Department of Children and Families is considering awarding a three-year contract worth about $414 million to SunCoast Community Services, a new nonprofit group started by Lutheran Services of Florida. That, contends Manatee Glens Chief Executive Officer Mary Ruiz, will hurt local service providers.
A DCF negotiating team voted 7-2 in October to recommend SunCoast over Central Florida Behavorial Health Network, a nonprofit group of providers that has contracted with the state agency for 10 years.
Ruiz is a board member of the provider network, which holds a contract with the state through June 30, 2010. It subcontracts with 19 providers, including Manatee Glens, a 54-year-old mental health and addiction services organization that receives $11 million annually in state funding.
Under the recommendation, the new group would administer funds for the entire Suncoast Region, which covers 11 counties along the Gulf Coast, including Manatee. The recommendation is awaiting final approval from DCF Secretary George Sheldon.
Ruiz said her network has a solid record of administering DCF funds and is concerned that SunCoast will subcontract with for-profit agencies that lack experience working with federal block grant funding and local agencies.
“I’m puzzled,” Ruiz said, “because here you have a proven entity with such a stellar track record that has 10 years of experience ably managing the department’s contracts; you have 100 percent of the providers supporting that entity. And instead we’re going to go to an untested entity with one of the most important services in our community.”
Nick Cox, the DCF’s Suncoast regional administrator, agrees that the provider network has been effective under the current system. But the state’s emphasis has changed, he said.
“They’ve done some good work for us,” Cox said. “There’s no doubt about it. We’re trying to integrate the mental health and substance abuse services. We’re the trustees of the public’s money. That’s our job.”
In the new contract proposal, DCF wants to create a “managing entity,” a single nonprofit group charged with administering the mental health and substance abuse funds in the Suncoast region. DCF currently has contracts and subcontracts with 91 different organizations in the Suncoast Region. But Ruiz said the provider network essentially created a managing entity 10 years ago when it linked providers from 11 counties.
Ruiz and Cox agreed that the provider network outscored SunCoast on the written application for the contract. But SunCoast impressed the negotiation team during a six-week interview process, Cox said.
“What happens is you use these written applications to enable the organizations to enter the interview phase. They both impressed me,” Cox said. “Lutheran came in with a lot of innovative ideas.”
Lutheran Services of Florida, which was formed in 1982, emphasized putting the needs of the clients and community ahead of the needs of the service providers in its proposal, according to CEO Samuel Sipes. He said providers often don’t communicate the needs of clients as they move through different organizations.
“They (DCF officials) were looking for something new. What we offered in our proposal was an alternative,” Sipes said. “Right now, the money doesn’t follow the clients. ... Our whole system creates a database where we follow the clients through the system.”
SunCoast proposes to subcontract with Providence Management Corp. of Florida, PsychCare and Five Points Group Technology, all for-profit companies, while the provider network is a nonprofit entity. Five Points is headquartered in Bradenton.
Sipes said the for-profit companies will be involved with payroll and technology and won’t affect the services clients receive.
“It’s not a for-profit takeover of the system,” Sipes said. “We have nothing to gain by that.What we did is went out and thought, ‘Why reinvent the wheel? Who can do this and has experience?’ ”
Cox said the increasing privatization of state services will result in the use of more for-profit companies. “Both of them have strengths,” he said. “The important issue is not to push one or the other out of the way.”
There may yet be a way for the provider network to keep part of the state contract, but it doesn’t make Ruiz any happier. She said that during a meeting on Dec. 11, Cox and representatives from SunCoast’s partners proposed awarding SunCoast the contract for services in Manatee and south along the coast to Collier County. The provider network would retain the contract for the region’s northern counties — Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough — under the plan, she said.
Dave Sofferin, DCF’s assistant secretary for substance abuse and mental health, said the state is still in an “information-gathering mode” and has made no decisions. DCF plans to meet with providers and community members before making a final decision, Cox said.
In a Dec. 16 letter to Sheldon, the 19 providers in the provider network formally objected to the new proposal. “We are writing to express our unanimous and vigorous opposition to utilizing Lutheran Services of North Florida aka SunCoast Community Services and its for-profit partners as the managing entity for the southern part of the region. ... This is a bad business decision for the state and consumers,” the letter said.
Ruiz is concerned Manatee Glens could lose part of its $11 million in state funding if SunCoast receives the DCF contract.
But Sipes said Manatee Glens should not fear a loss of funding.
“They are absolutely a needed provider in the area,” he said. “There’s a safety net there that needs to be maintained.”