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County wants agency to coordinate services


Howard County residents with mental illnesses could have an agency to better coordinate their services by the end of the year, under a proposal to be presented at a hearing tonight.

The proposed core-service agency would bring together all of the county's mental health care services, manage all of the public and private funds coming into the county for these services and give the county more local control, proponents say.

"The core-service agency will allow planning decisions and decisions as far as mental health services at the local level rather than through the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene," said Dr. Joyce Boyd, county health officer.

At the end of the 1995 session, the state legislature unanimously approved a bill to allow Howard County to create the agency as a "quasi-public authority" similar to the county's Economic Development Authority.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, a Republican representing parts of western Howard and Montgomery counties.

Although the bill awaits the governor's signature, county health officials already have completed a tentative proposal outlining the benefits of the agency and how it would function.

The proposal -- which eventually will require approval from the county executive, the County Council and the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene -- will be presented to the public at a 7 o'clock hearing tonight at Florence Bain Senior Center in Columbia.

The primary purpose of the agency will be to "ensure that comprehensive, well-coordinated and high quality services are available to Howard County residents of all ages who have serious mental illnesses," according to a mission statement developed by the county's Core Service Agency Task Force.

The task force estimates that there are 5,000 to 17,500 Howard County residents with serious mental illnesses, and it points to the difficulty of defining the problems.

"We don't have real good numbers, and we need them," Dr. Boyd said. "We hope that's one of the things the core-service agency can do."

Although the new agency would not provide services directly, it would oversee the treatment of residents, developing plans for care and coordinating among public and private providers.

The agency would manage the approximately $4 million in funding that the county Health Department receives for mental health services, Dr. Boyd said.

In its letter, the task force acknowledges that the county has lost some funding in recent years because it does not have a core-service agency.

"As a quasi-public authority, it will be better able to apply for private funds as well as getting all of the county and state funds that we . . . receive," Dr. Boyd said.

The agency would be overseen by a board of 12 to 20 people, said Manus J. O'Donnell, director of the county's department of citizen services. The board's membership would be split among mental health clients, their families, mental health professionals and providers, and at-large community members.

"This will involve the clients and their families much more in the oversight of the delivery system because 50 percent of the membership of the board will be clients and their families members," Mr. O'Donnell said.

The creation of the agency would put Howard in compliance with the requests of the state health department, which four years ago asked that all counties create their own core-service agencies to oversee mental health services by 1995.

Counties could set up the agencies within their health departments, as quasi-public authorities or as private, nonprofit groups.

Howard chose the quasi-public authority model because it permits the agency to use the county government for routine tasks, such as purchasing and benefits, while still being independent enough to apply for outside grants, Mr. O'Donnell said.

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