Pinellas County residents experiencing behavioral health issues will soon have a new, innovative resource to utilize.
Commissioners unanimously approved over $9 million in funding during Tuesday’s board meeting for the Pinellas County Behavioral Health Coordinated Access Model. The money will support the implementation and operation of the technologically advanced system by the selected contractor, Unite Us.
According to its website, the company’s infrastructure provides a care coordination platform centered on people and hands-on community engagement. Unite Us is partnering with the University of South Florida to provide clinical support, and Administrator Barry Burton said county officials devised the program over the last several years.
“Bringing a behavioral health program to Pinellas County is just exciting,” said Commissioner Dave Eggers. “I know this has been a heavy lift, and we’re getting there.”
Karen Yatchum, director of human services, explained the CAM would provide a centralized intake system to streamline care access for residents of all ages. She said there would be one number for people to call, a website and text and online chat features where those in need can talk about what they are experiencing.
Unite Us will also provide virtual contacts through service providers and an e-referral form for appointments. “That is really kind of what we’re driving for,” added Yatchum.
According to county documents, Unite Us offers proprietary software referrals and case management tasks between health and social service organizations on a common platform. The USF College of Behavioral Science will help perform initial health assessments, triage and set appointments with care providers, integrate with crisis care services, and provide telehealth psychiatry and prescription provider consultation when needed.
“We’re also designing this for the helpers in our community,” said Yatchum. “So, case managers, hospital discharge planners – those that really coordinate care for others.”
While the CAM utilizes technology to mitigate behavioral health issues, she said officials would also work with community care hubs for people without access to smartphones, computers or the internet. Those residents can walk into local centers and receive assistance.
Eggers noted a stigma still remains surrounding seeking help for behavioral issues, especially among veterans and first responders. County leaders recently launched its HEROES program specifically to address that need.
The CAM would provide anonymity, said Eggers, and Yatchum believes commissioners will be most proud of the program’s network-building aspect.
“It’s not just going to be the providers the county contracts with,” she explained. “We’re really going to look to expand all of those services. Services aimed at youth, services for veterans and first responders – that would be part of the network.”
Yatchum reiterated the platform is built with its client’s needs in mind rather than providers, and said it focuses on privacy, confidentiality and reducing any associated stigmas.
Documents state the administrators issued a request for proposals in November 2021, and Unite Us was the sole respondent.
County officials deemed the company “highly qualified and capable” of meeting the project’s requirements and held three public information sessions for vendors and stakeholders to solicit feedback. They found that other organizations were incapable of providing the comprehensive services needed.
The process began in December 2019 when administrators sought to develop a strategic plan to enhance the Pinellas County Adult Behavioral System. The subsequent report outlined requirements included in the CAM, which Eggers said would launch in spring 2023.
Commissioners unanimously approved a four-year contract with Unite Us for $9.158 million. The county’s American Rescue Plan Act allocation will support about $1 million of the annual cost, with the human services general fund supplying the remaining $1.3 million.
“I’m really proud of the effort,” said Eggers. “And I think the people of Pinellas County will be so much better for having this available.”
Yatchum said program officials would begin building a marketing campaign in the coming months, and noted Unite Us is well established in Florida with staff already based in Pinellas.