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OptumHealth taking over mental health services from Pierce County

OptumHealth taking over mental health services from Pierce County

Mental health services for 15,000 people are closing in Pierce County, officials say. And now there are concerns about what will happen to those patients - and the 130 county employees who are losing their jobs.

The county and state agreed to transfer the county's crisis and evaluation and treatment units' functions to a private company, OptumHealth.

Officials say it will save taxpayers money. But many employees who work here wish it would save their jobs.

One of those employees, mental health counselor Jeffrey Boyce, paces back and forth, talks to his wife and smokes under stress - moments after finding out he lost his job.

"Very disappointed, as a matter of fact, because this was a job I came to a year and a half ago thinking this was going to be something I can do for the next 10 years," he says.

Pierce County will lay off Boyce along with roughly 130 other mental health employees next month.

The county's deputy executive, Kevin Phelps, says it's a sign of the tough economic times.

"This is an outfall of the budget crisis that not only the state but the local government is facing," he says.

Many patients are admitted to the crisis units because they pose a danger to others or themselves. OptumHealth will now serve those patients at a temporary 45-bed crisis center located at Western State Hospital.

Eventually, the contractor plans to open other sites around the county, and the Western State center will be phased out.

The state Department of Social and Health Services says the quality of care won't changed

"We trust what they've told us. We have no reason not to trust that," Phelps says. "We certainly will monitor it, and we will certainly weigh in.

State officials say OptumHealth's subcontractor may hire some of the laid-off employees. But there's no guarantee.

"Now I don't know where I am going to go," says Boyce. "I've been working in the mental health field for 5 1/2 years."