WES Health Provides Behavioral Healthcare to Low-Income Communities

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Dennis-Cook-thumbDennis Cook, President and Chief Executive Officer

by Patricia Chaney

More than 30 years ago, Philadelphia, Penn., began to recognize the necessity of not only providing quality behavioral healthcare, but also providing it in a way that gave low-income patients the resources they needed to be higher-functioning citizens in their communities.

By the 1990s, the series of organizations that had been established to fill this need were struggling to stay viable and suffering from inconsistent leadership and no federal funds.

WES Health System was born out of this turmoil, and with proper management and fiscal oversight, it has been able to grow and thrive.

Having a community of support for mental health

The quality of mental health services, particularly for low-income populations, varies across the country and has always been a challenge to fund and to work into the larger healthcare system. In Philadelphia, the city and its political leaders recognized that WES Health System provided a necessary service to its residents and was committed to helping the organization grow.

Dennis Cook, president and chief executive officer of the system, took the reins in 1996, and the organization has grown from four local clinics to providing services in 40 locations, including schools, community centers, and 17 stand-alone clinics.

“With the help of the Chief Financial Officer, I established appropriate spending controls, and we were able to stabilize the organization with the patience of the city and elected officials,” Cook said. “When I started, almost every service was in provisional status, and within two years, we were able to improve the quality of our clinical services and get them licensed.”

Once the organization was financially stable, Cook said the board held a retreat to create a vision of what WES could become.

“We felt our talent was in providing services in an urban environment to low-income people who, for various reasons, were noncompliant with their treatment plans,” he said. “Many of our patients have other issues to deal with–eating, finding a place to live, going to school, feeling safe in their communities. Behavioral health is one of the last things you can get them [to] focus on with all those other issues, but we have a lot of experience helping those patients.”

Stretching its reach to help those in need

WES has also expanded to Illinois, Delaware, New Jersey, and most recently, Georgia. Cook said the organization has sought out opportunities to provide services to patients in this urban demographic.

Furthermore, WES has opened four clinics in Chicago and has added physical health services to its behavioral health line-up. It has also become credentialed with private health insurance carriers so that the agency can extend its services to the working population.

“We found cases where, for example, a person with alcoholism also had cirrhosis of the liver and needed physical health services as well as substance-abuse services,” Cook said.

The organization is opening a new Chicago location that will provide more services to a predominantly Hispanic population and will include a Health Start program and Better Birth Outcomes program for mothers and children in their first year.

In Georgia, the state sought out behavioral health providers to help it create a network of clinics for the purpose of providing care to people with intellectual disabilities.

“Previously, it was alleged that patients with intellectual disabilities were managed in a hospital with people diagnosed with depression or schizophrenia,” Cook said. “It was determined this was clinically inappropriate, and we are excited about establishing an office in Georgia.”

Growing services at its home base

WES Health System has 40 clinical programs and provides multiple mobile services to reach patients where they are. The organization has always provided full services to children and adults, and it now provides physical health services to all.

“Now that we are in schools, community centers, and homes, our no-show rate has gone down,” Cook said. “Getting people to come in is one of the biggest hurdles to providing care to this population.”

At its original location in Philadelphia, WES is undergoing a $13-million project to provide affordable housing for seniors. The organization is renovating a 70,000 square-foot building that will contain more than 100 apartments for seniors on the upper floors and a physical health clinic, a behavioral health clinic, and a home health agency on the first floor.

“We will be able to provide one-stop health and housing shopping for a population becoming more and more in need of services like this,” Cook said.

He said WES’ success is largely because of the dedication of the community and the providers to come to these clinics. The health system invests a great deal in training its staff, especially physicians who choose to move up into management roles. In doing this, physicians must learn how to budget, manage staff, and contain costs in addition to continuing to satisfy the demands on their clinical skills.

“I am always amazed by the dedication of the individuals who choose to take care of the people most in need and least able to afford care,” Cook said. “It is an honor for me to take what skills I have and use them to create an environment where the organization can thrive and the clinicians can provide their services.”

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