Hollie Blank was in a party mood this afternoon at Valley Mental Health's Fresh Start, celebrating not only its growing success but also brighter future thanks to the commitment of Medicaid funding for the peer-driven program.
Several years ago, Fresh Start and a sister therapy program called Wellness and Recovery replaced the popular but controversial Pathways as part of a restructuring by then-Valley CEO Deborah Falvo that, in part, led subsequently to a rift with major Valley funder, Salt Lake County. That rift ultimately saw the county take control of its $50 million annual contract away from Valley and give it to Optum Health back in September 2010.
Some clients City Weekly spoke to back in the summer of 2009 expressed deep concern about losing Pathways to a unique-to-Utah drop-in day program that would be run by clients. Pathways had been a highly structured program for mentally ill clients with therapists providing support, but Fresh Start, by comparison, was largely run and staffed by higher-functioning clients.
Blank says that while the program suffered a dip in numbers after it recently moved from downtown to 3900 S. 1141 East, it nevertheless was seeing 150 clients a week, apparently around double the number who attended when Fresh Start began.
Part of the reason for today's festivities, she says, was that Fresh Start had earned a Medicaid certification, allowing Valley to bill for the program. That meant, says PR consultant Kelly Starkey, that Fresh Start would be extending its programming and hours, thanks to the funding, along with expanding "our peer teaching program, where clients teach skills" they have developed, whether knitting, running a bingo game or engaging in leadership activities.
"It's unbelievable to me in these two years that we’ve come this far and accomplished so much," Blank says, who is both case manager and assistant manager at Fresh Start. "The peers truly have a voice in the program."
Programs are available for all levels, she continues. Clients are also being encouraged to "go through peer specialist training so that they’re certified," allowing them to work as mentors within the mental health community.
What's particularly important about the Medicaid certification, Blank added proudly, is that now, instead of being supported by Valley, "we’re self-sufficient."
She says the program has four consultants advising six peer specialists. "It's very much peer-driven." While the Wellness and Recovery program that started along side Fresh Start has been phased out, she believes Fresh Start nevertheless incorporates a number of wellness-type therapy groups, including anxiety and bi-polar groups, where peers are both teaching and sharing their own experiences with clients.