Rim Guidance, Valley Firm Merge

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Twenty-five-year-old Payson health provider Rim Guidance Center has merged with Southwest Behavioral Health, which has been serving communities in Maricopa County since 1969.

The new nonprofit organization, named The Rim Guidance Center Division of Southwest Behavioral Health, is geared to improve the quality of local service and responsiveness to community needs, said recently installed Executive Director Jeffrey Gray.

"We are totally focused on the needs of the community, whether we're in Payson or Phoenix," said Gray, who has been with Southwest for more than seven years, serving most recently as vice president of services for special populations.

"We will work with community leaders and stakeholders to get a handle on services needed here, and we'll get busy finding the dollars and talent to fill those needs. My main job is (to) talk with everyone who has an interest in improving the behavioral health of the greater Payson area."

Originally, Southwest was known as the Phoenix South Community Mental Health Center. In 1995, that incarnation merged with Scottsdale-based Community Behavioral Health to become the broad-based entity it is today.

Currently, Southwest serves more than 1,000 people a year and is the second-largest behavioral health agency in Maricopa County with an annual budget in excess of $13 million. Southwest has contracts with the City of Phoenix, Maricopa County, the State of Arizona and the federal government. It provides a wide array of services including counseling, home treatment, homeless outreach, housing for the seriously mentally ill and patients with HIV/AIDS, job assistance for welfare recipients, and school-based drug, alcohol and other prevention programs for at-risk youth and their families.

The merger came about, Gray said, after Southwest was awarded a contract to provide many of the same services already delivered by Rim Guidance in the Payson area. A discussion between officials of the two agencies quickly led to the ultimate collaboration: a complete joining of forces.

"One of the toughest things in mental health is funding," Gray said. "There's never really enough to do what you want to do for your community. There are only limited dollars. The legislature only approves the expenditure of so much funding, and that's divvied up across the entire state.

"But SBH has been very successful over the past 30 years in putting together programs that are not only effective in the treatment of folks, but that have also been managed well enough to generate enough dollars to invest in other programs.

"That's what we've been able to do in this situation," Gray said. "RGC was financially viable, but struggling in terms of its ability to do new things and Southwest is ready, willing and able to invest in the Payson community, and to put the funds earned here back into the community."

While funding comes from a "vast array of sources," Gray said, the primary source is the Behavioral Health Division of the Arizona Department of Health Services. That money is parceled out, in this case, by the Pinal-Gila Behavioral Health Authority in Apache Junction.

For services received, clients pay based solely on their ability to pay.

"We don't turn away anyone for lack of funds," Gray said, "because our job is to serve all the behavioral health needs in Northern Gila County."

Among the existing areas of health care Gray expects to enhance is emergency response.

"For example, when the hospital or the police have someone who is experiencing a psychotic episode that's not related to the commission of a crime or their physical health, there needs to be a better, quicker and more comprehensive response than there's been in the past. We're already talking with everyone involved about ways that response can be improved."

Another area due for improvement, he said, is prevention programming the purpose of which is to head off potential problems before they hit the legal or behavioral health systems, whether they involve parents, children, tobacco, alcohol and other drugs, or any combination thereof.

Gray said there is little difference between the types and per capita occurrence of such problems in Payson and Phoenix. But some may be less visible in these parts simply because people don't expect to find them in rural settings.

"Recently, over a couple of days, one of our counselors saw two people in their early to mid-twenties who were self-referred for drug counseling," Gray said. "They wanted help in avoiding the free drugs methamphetamines that were offered and given to them on the streets of Payson.

"These drugs are just handed out here so that, later on, when (the users) come back for more, there's suddenly a price tag attached. Were these isolated incidents? Maybe. But you can count on this: The problem is going to grow."

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