This article was originally published by the Wichita Eagle newspaper on August 16, 2016

Nonprofit partner for mental health care agency launched


County and mental health officials on Tuesday announced the official launch of a nonprofit partner for Sedgwick County’s mental-health department, COMCARE.

COMCARE Community Partners will help raise funds and recruit volunteers for the department, which provides suicide prevention, substance abuse and crisis services.

“We can continue to provide those services to the public and do it in a way that actually helps those that are in the deepest need in our community,” said Jason Van Sickle, who will be the board’s chair and president.

The Sedgwick County Commission expressed interest in privatizing the mental health department last year. This nonprofit would not take over COMCARE’s day-to-day operations, but work to raise the agency’s profile in the community.

Van Sickle said the nonprofit’s board will made up of business, mental health and law enforcement leaders.

What the nonprofit will do

The nonprofit will raise funds through its website, which went live Tuesday. Van Sickle referenced tightening budgets in Topeka and Washington for mental health care.

“Times are changing,” Van Sickle said. “There are less and less state and federal dollars available to support very important community organizations like COMCARE.”

Van Sickle said he thinks there would be a strong appeal for donations from the private sector.

“Given its public aspect, there’s a higher level of transparency and accountability,” Van Sickle said. “This isn’t just a nonprofit where you may or may not know the leaders of the organization receiving the funds. This is a nonprofit supporting a Sedgwick County community-based organization that’s existed for over 50 years.”

COMCARE Community Partners will also start a volunteer program.

“We’re expanding to allow individuals from the community to come in and work first-hand in helping with all of our programs,” Van Sickle said.

Board members

Van Sickle said the board hopes to have its first official meeting by September.

Roots in Privatization

Last year, commissioners in the county’s conservative majority explored the possibility of turning over COMCARE’s day-to-day services to a nonprofit group partially or entirely.

Chairman Jim Howell said commissioners’ questions about COMCARE’s efficiency were a building block for this public-private partnership.

“This initial discussion caused some concern and fear, but more importantly a robust, healthy discussion about this issue,” Howell said. “That discussion has given rise to new opportunities.”

Howell said COMCARE Community Partners will allow the county “to build on what we have.”

“It gives our community a voice in COMCARE and may provide more capacity for the organization to serve the mental health community,” Howell said.

Law enforcement ties

Bennett and Easter were skeptical of the commission’s interest in privatizing COMCARE, pointing to how their departments were helped by COMCARE’s current structure and work with crisis services.

For instance, the community crisis center at 635 N. Main helps provide around-the-clock crisis and sobering services to those with mental crisis or substance abuse issues.

Bennett said the center is helping people and providing “huge cost savings” by keeping those people out of custody or the emergency room.

“The crisis center is a great way to divert people out of the criminal justice system,” Bennett said. “So if you can get them in the crisis center, get them sober, get them emergency mental health treatment, they don’t go to his (Easter’s) jail.”

Easter said they wanted to make sure they didn’t lose “all the work that we have spent the last 15 years getting COMCARE and the crisis center and law enforcement together” if COMCARE’s services were moved to another organization.

“The original conversation that we were both concerned about was privatization. Period,” Easter said. “Those concerns aren’t there anymore like we had in the beginning.”

Easter said he wanted to be on the board to make sure COMCARE and law enforcement “are all still together on this project and doing what’s best for these people in need.”

Bennett said the money the nonprofit would raise could help sustain the crisis center’s work.

“It’s an expansion…as opposed to saying ‘we’re going to upend what COMCARE has done historically,’” Bennett said. “That’s why I think Jeff and I are on this.”

“Anything I can do to help the crisis center get bigger and more adequately funded, I’m all in.”