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Mental health merger talks ongoing

Local board could combine with 2 others

Southwest Alabama Mental Health might merge with two other similar mental health organizations.

Escambia County Probate Judge Doug Agerton said Tuesday the SWAMH board is considering merging with both South Central and Southwest Alabama mental health boards.

Agerton, whose office handles mental health commitments, said out of Alabama’s 67 counties, Escambia ranks 16th in the number of mental health committments and provides services through SWAMH.

Headquartered in Monroeville, the agency serves clients in Conecuh, Clarke, Escambia, and Monroe counties. Created in 1972, the public non-profit corporation is governed by a 19-member board of directors appointed by local governments. A group of professional counselors, case managers, nurses, psychiatrists and qualified mental retardation professionals provide services. For persons in crisis situations, immediate care is available 24 hours a day through the Crisis Line service.

Agerton attributed the possible merger to declining funds and an increasing need for services. The new un-named agency would then cover services for 12 counties, which would also include Covington, Coffee, Crenshaw, Butler, Bullock, Macon and Pike counties. It would be a two-board system with a 10-12 member working board and an estimated 15-person executive board. While the particulars of how the boards operate is unknown, Agerton said the to-be-named director would be located possibly in Andalusia.

“Right now, (SWAMH’s) budget is $8 million,” Agerton said. “By merging, we could increase that to $25 million, which means increased personnel and services for the people in Escambia and the surrounding areas.”

Agerton said current budget conditions prohibit overtime for the local agency.

“With a combined agency, there will be more money for programs,” he said. “That’s what we need right now. Our staff is a good staff. We have enough people to do what needs to be done, but there is a problem with overtime.”

Currently, there is no money to cover overtime costs, he said. Traditionally, a mental health professional responds along with law enforcement when a mental health incident is reported, Agerton said.

“But, not all episodes happen between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.,” he said. “Used to, we had people to respond to the emergency room to evaluate those patients, but not any more. We had to cut that out. Now, we have to figure out what to do with that person.”

There are two options, he said – an overnight observation stay in the hospital’s ICU unit or placement inside the Escambia County Detention Center’s observation room.

“Hospitals don’t want that, and even worse, we don’t want to take them to the jail,” Agerton said. “But we have to do what’s safest for that patient.

“After all, these people need our help, which is why I think Escambia County is so high up on the list for providing services,” he said. “We are a caring community, and people know they can come (to the probate office); that we’ll help.

“It’s a hard thing to do, to do a mental commitment on Mother or brother,” he said. “On a local level, if the merger happens, people won’t see any changes\ – just more available personnel to provide additional services.”

Agerton said it was unknown when an official vote on the merger would occur.