Polk sales tax money boosts mental health services, committee told

By Marilyn Meyer


BARTOW — Leaders of five agencies that provide mental health and addiction services used slide presentations to show how well they are stretching money from the Polk County half-cent sales tax to serve indigent and low-income residents.

Key to Friday's presentation was a report from Jeanna Cox, a senior health planner with Polk County's Health and Human Services Department, that showed, in 2015, only 41 percent of Polk's 650,092 residents had private health insurance — which was a 12 percent improvement from the previous year. Twenty-two percent had Medicare coverage for the elderly and disabled, 22 percent had Medicaid coverage for disabled adults and children from low-income families, 13 percent were uninsured and the status of 2 percent was unknown.

Approximately $40 million a year comes in through the health care sales tax to fill the unmet needs of the working poor. Some of that is spent paying state-mandated fees for health care and the rest is spent on the Polk HealthCare Plan and on providing money to 10 partner agencies that deliver low-cost and free health care services.

The Citizens Oversight Committee, which meets monthly to oversee how the sales tax money is being spent, heard Friday from agencies that provide mental health and addiction services and about how they stretch the county funds to obtain matching grants and to provide as many services as possible.

Points that highlighted programs or assessments:

• Marcia Monroe, chief clinical officer for Central Florida Behavioral Health: The 2016 needs assessment of behavioral health services found that the highest ranked need in Polk County was for affordable housing. Region-wide, the highest ranked need was for supportive housing programs, followed closely by affordable housing.

• Teresa Even, behavioral health services manager at Winter Haven Hospital for Behavioral Health: The Specialized Community Care Team was created about a year ago to take mental health and case management services directly to the homes of qualified indigent clients who do not receive regular services because they are unable to make it to appointments. The countywide program has served 89 clients.

• Desiree Meaton-Francisco, manager of the Problem Solving Court for the 10th Judicial Circuit: An administrative order will allow the Problem-Solving Court to expand its services to those charged with third-degree nonviolent felonies, which is expected to drastically increase the number of clients being served through the drug courts and the veterans treatment docket. The courts provide oversight, such as twice-weekly drug screens, therapies and case management for up to 12 months to reduce recidivism.

• Donn Van Stee, administrative director of Tri-County Human Services: Three-to-five times more clients are able to be seen since an an integrated program was started to provide behavioral health counseling at the Central Florida Health Clinic's primary care sites in Lakeland and Winter Haven. But the need for behavioral health services is great and the funding from local, state and federal sources is reaching meets only 14 percent of the need in Polk County.

• Bill Gardam, chief executive officer of Peace River Center: For every $1 spent by the county on mental health services, there is $7.50 worth of services delivered.

— Marilyn Meyer can be reached at marilyn.meyer@theledger.com or 863-802-7558. Follow her on Twitter @marilyn_ledger.