Behavioral Health agencies in Cobb and Haralson counties consolidate

Melanie Dallas headshotMelanie Dallas, LPC, CEO of Highland Rivers Behavioral Health (photo courtesy of CCCSB)

Cobb County Community Services Board and Haralson Behavioral Health Services are consolidating and integrating into Highland Rivers Health. Those agencies provide services for people with behavioral health issues, including substance abuse, and people with developmental disabilities.

According to the press release announcing the merger:

The combined agency will retain the legal name Highland Rivers Community Service Board but will do business as Highland Rivers Behavioral Health, with a new logo and the new tagline, “One community fostering hope, empowerment and purpose.” A new agency website will be unveiled in early 2022 as part of the ongoing rebranding and service integration that is expected to take several months.

Following the consolidation, Highland Rivers will be the largest behavioral health provider in Georgia, with a 13-county service territory that is home to more than 1.7 million people – nearly 17% of Georgia’s population – across a 4,700 square mile area of northwest Georgia. With a combined workforce of nearly 1,000 professionals, the agency will have an approximately $75 million annual budget.

The Courier spoke with Melanie Dallas, the CEO of Highland Rivers Behavioral Health, about what the consolidation will mean for individuals using the services.

How would you describe the new entity? An agency?

“There are really kind of three entities that are coming together,” Dallas said. “There’s Haralson Behavioral Health, which has been a one-county system. And then there’s the Cobb County Community Services Board. For the last several years, it’s been a one-county system.”

“And then they’re consolidating into Highland Rivers Health, which has served 12 counties in northwest Georgia,” she said. “So all of them have been standing mental health agencies that are coming together just under one roof, which will continue with the Highland Rivers Behavioral Health name.”

What changes will the individuals who receive services see?

Dallas said that for existing individuals who are currently receiving the services it will be completely transparent, and there will be no interruption in services whatsoever.

She said that for people who have been trying to get into the programs, the consolidation will allow the agency to increase its footprint and serve more individuals.

“So for instance, in Cobb, we have a very clear plan of serving more individuals in Cobb County,” she said. “And when we speak to those individuals that are very specific to being served in a community service board, like our agency, it is individuals who have severe and persistent mental illness, individuals who are at risk for homelessness, who are uninsured or underinsured, and do not have the resources to afford behavioral health care that they need.”

She said that people who are insured or have the resources to afford behavioral health services do not need the services of the agency since they have many other service providers available.

“So our sweet spot is those who are probably the most challenged by their mental issues and substance use,” she said.

How many people are currently being served?

“In Cobb, we’re serving close to 5000,” Dallas said. “In Highland Rivers Behavioral Health, it’s closer to 16,000.”

“And so collectively, we’ll once we all are under that same umbrella, it’ll be close to 21,000 individuals that will be served,” she said. “For Cobb, we serve 5,000 Right now, and we’re looking to grow that over the next several years to serving closer to eight to 10,000 individuals.”

Dallas outlined some of the services the CCCSB currently provides:

  • We work very closely with law enforcement.
  • We also work very closely with local hospitals.
  • (For) people who are in crisis and need mental health services, we have our behavioral health crisis center right there on County Services Parkway.
  • We also have residential programs where people stay for periods of time to work on a lot of those programs centered around dealing with issues of substance use, in helping individuals to get into recovery.
  • And then we also have a lot of traditional outpatient type of services, which are individual and family group kind of counseling.
  • We also work with children in the schools. So we have a school based behavioral health program.
  • And then because many of the individuals we serve have maybe a greater need, we have some very specialized programs … like a hospital without walls, which is very, very intensive. But it’s aimed at trying to keep people out of the hospital when they do get into crisis, and when they do have significant symptoms coming from the challenges around their mental illness or substance use.
  • We have a lot of community based services. We can go into a person’s home and work with them. For instance, we do have some housing programs for individuals who we serve with mental illness that we can help them to find housing.
  • We also have supported employment programs where we can help people to become employed.
  • Housing and employment are two of the areas we’d love to grow more. Obviously, there are funding limitations that exist within Georgia as as well as across the nation, but housing and employment are very, very critical aspects to recovery for the populations who we serve.
  • In the last couple of years, we’ve started a partnership with Cobb police department where we have a co-response program. We partner a mental health clinician with our law enforcement, and are able to go into the community when we get calls that are received either into the 911 center, or that somehow get on the radar of the police. And we’re able to dispatch a team that goes out that’s specially trained to work with those types of issues … as a team of a police officer, and a mental a licensed mental health clinician that goes out into the community. And that’s that’s been a really effective program.

Do you have any closing thoughts that readers should know about this consolidation?

“One of the things that I think is important, as a community service board, we’re an instrumentality of the state,” she said. “And we are funded primarily through appropriations from our General Assembly that flows through the Department of Behavioral Health right through the governor’s budget.”

“And so that’s a big piece of our funding, and then also Medicaid,” said Dallas. “I think that gives an overall view of the individuals who we serve.”

“But I think the thing that’s also critical to understand is we are, as an instrumentality of the state, not an agency that is in a position or even has a desire to make a lot of money,” she said. “Margin is not our goal. Service is our goal.”

“And so one of the things that I have tried to clearly make sure that people know as we move through this consolidation is when you look at a corporate environment, many times consolidations are about sort of squeezing the revenues out (and) reducing costs,” Dallas said. “But that’s not really our goal. That’s not who we are, we are not looking for any staff to lose their jobs at all.”

“We’re not looking at trying to squeeze efficiency or cost out of our program, we’re looking to have a better place at the table to do greater advocacy for those we serve.”

“We’ve got about 17 percent of the state’s population just in the territory. And so that gives us a seat at the table to do greater advocacy for the needs of those we serve,” she said. “And that really, to me is one of the hugest benefits of being able to come together and to operate more.”

“That’s what I feel like is a huge advantage to coming together and having these 13 counties under one umbrella, and one system of leadership,” Dallas said.

For more information on the consolidation, read the press release reprinted below:

DALTON, Georgia – December 1, 2021 – Highland Rivers Health, one of Georgia’s largest behavioral health agencies, will grow substantially in 2022 with the integration of Haralson Behavioral Health Services and Cobb County Community Services Board.

The combined agency will retain the legal name Highland Rivers Community Service Board but will do business as Highland Rivers Behavioral Health, with a new logo and the new tagline, “One community fostering hope, empowerment and purpose.” A new agency website will be unveiled in early 2022 as part of the ongoing rebranding and service integration that is expected to take several months.

Following the consolidation, Highland Rivers will be the largest behavioral health provider in Georgia, with a 13-county service territory that is home to more than 1.7 million people – nearly 17% of Georgia’s population – across a 4,700 square mile area of northwest Georgia. With a combined workforce of nearly 1,000 professionals, the agency will have an approximately $75 million annual budget.

The new, integrated organization will improve access to a broader array of behavioral health services for Georgians in metro Atlanta and northwest Georgia, said Judy Fitzgerald, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

“Consistent access to quality behavioral health services should be a part of all Georgians’ overall healthcare plans,” said Fitzgerald. “Highland Rivers has been a great partner to the state in providing high quality services to those who are uninsured or underinsured, and their expansion is a hopeful sign that more Georgians can have consistent access to services that support their overall wellbeing.”

Plans for the potential consolidation of Cobb County CSB (CCCSB) into Highland Rivers Health began in late 2019, as CCCSB was unable to adequately meet demand for services in the community. Toward that end, Highland Rivers CEO Melanie Dallas was contracted to serve as interim CEO of the Cobb agency in July 2020, following the retirement of CEO Foster Norman.

During the ensuing period, staff from Highland Rivers worked closely with their counterparts at CCCSB to determine processes for integrating the operational and financial workings of the two agencies. Following months of intensive preparation and planning, the governing boards of both entities this summer voted to proceed with consolidation.

Haralson County has been served by Haralson Behavioral Health Services (HBHS), a stand-alone agency with approximately 20 staff but which was not a community service board. Highland Rivers Health has had a long-term partnership with HBHS to provide community-based services in the county, and has generally considered Haralson County as part of its service territory. As with Cobb County CSB, the Haralson Behavioral Health facility will become a Highland Rivers facility and staff will become employees of Highland Rivers Behavioral Health.

The Highland Rivers governing board will undergo changes as well. The current 14-member will be expanded to 18 members, with consideration being given to the population size of the counties served. Melanie Dallas will continue as CEO of the new entity, and all existing members of Highland Rivers’ executive team will likewise remain in their current positions.

“Highland Rivers has always been very intentional about partnerships in the community, and by integrating the Cobb and Haralson organizations, we will all be able to work more effectively to strengthen the behavioral health safety net in Georgia,” Dallas said. “What’s most important is that individuals with behavioral health needs are receiving the services they need, and this consolidation will allow us to serve more people with better services in Cobb County and all the communities we serve.”

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