Expanding access to mental health

The new executive director at the Berryhill Center for mental health has been busy improving access to its services.

Since he took the position in December 2013, Aaron McHone has been busy bringing down wait times for new patients, and presiding over a new program to help those who might fall through the cracks.

The number of patients seen has doubled under McHone, from just over 900 patient appointments per month in December 2013 to about 1,800 in April, May and June.

Cutting down wait times is vital to make sure people get access to the help they need, he said.

“We’ve been able to keep wait times down for patients, which is really important,” McHone said. “It’s not uncommon for a patient to be struggling with things for six months, nine months before they call. The last thing they want to hear is ‘We can get you in in three more months.'”

In January the wait time was 68 days for a psychiatry patient, he said, and 34 days for therapy. By May, patients could make an appointment and see a specialist the same day.

“Most of this is bringing on new staff,” he said. “We’ve been able to hire and bring on some really talented staff. We’ve added three new counselors, and three new – I call them psychiatric providers.”

The three new providers include one psychiatrist and two nurse practitioners, both of whom can see patients and prescribe medication when it’s warranted.

Wait times are starting to creep back up again, he said, as more people take advantage of the services.

“We’re already talking about bringing on the next provider,” McHone said.

McHone has experience building staff. His previous job was at the Season Center in Spencer, where he worked for nine years. Starting as a case manager, he eventually became director of operations in 2010.

“During those three years, we went from 48 employees to 74 when I left,” he said. “We went from seven offices to 10. A $3.8 million budget to $5.6 million. We went from serving about 3,500 patients in a year, to 4,800 in a year.

“Again, I don’t take credit for it; we had a lot of amazing people working there.”

McHone first discovered his affinity for mental health services while in college.

“When I was really young I wanted to be in the NFL. That didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped,” he said.

Instead, McHone spent one year at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minn., studying to be a history teacher, but found he didn’t have a way to pay tuition. A friend connected him with a company called ACR Homes, also in the St. Paul area, and he began work at a group home for adults with intellectual disabilities.

“I didn’t know anything about social work in general,” McHone said. “And what I found working with the gentlemen I worked with at ACR, it was the glove that fit. It was one of the most amazing times for growth that I ever had. … I still go back and visit them whenever I’m in the Twin Cities.”

McHone worked with mental health or intellectual disabilities in several different jobs, including a stint with a chemical dependency center called Minnesota Teen Challenge. He got his master’s degree in business from Iowa State University in 2011.

He and his wife came back to Iowa to start a family and live closer to her parents. Holly McHone is originally from Alta, while Aaron McHone graduated high school in Dunlap before moving to the Twin Cities for college. But this area was not unfamiliar to him.

“I went to Otho elementary school from kindergarten to second grade,” he said.

Since being here, McHone has made an impression on Registered Nurse Patricia Day.

“Aaron has the ability to get things done. He’s very highly motivated to reach out to the community, and let the community know about the services this building provides,” Day said. “I’m very impressed with him.”

Day has been a UnityPoint employee for 34 years, and currently works in what Berryhill calls the ACTION program – Assertive Community Treatment In Our Neighborhood.

Although the Berryhill Center falls under the leadership of UnityPoint Health, the center is its own not-for-profit entity, with its own board of directors. It is licensed as a community mental health center.

In April, McHone oversaw the creation of the Integrated Health Home program, which is another way to reach those who may have higher needs.

“Essentially, we’re working to make sure people are not falling through the cracks,” he said. “And there’s lots of cracks in the system, unfortunately.”

The program helps people get the transportation they need to attend their appointments, for instance. It helps people get financial assistance to buy medication, or helps provide reminders for people who forget to take their meds. Workers also help patients stay eligible for benefits.

“We have about 250 people enrolled in that program right now,” McHone said. “We want to have 600 people receiving that service by the end of the year.”

The center will expand its parent-child interactive therapy in 2015, which is a program where parents of children play with the children in a special room, with a therapist behind one-way glass. The therapist can hear what’s going on and give coaching to the parent through an earpiece.

“Children’s services are very hard to come by in the state of Iowa.,” he said. “We feel if you’re a parent of a child with special needs, you should be able to get them served locally.”

The center is also looking for new ways to partner with other entities that work with children, McHone said.

The need for mental health services is always great, he said.

“We need to recognize all of us, myself included, have issues in our lives that we’re working on. I don’t think we’re meant to work on those alone,” he said. “We need to remind people that it’s not only ok, it’s normal to need help.”