Health

Leader of Linn County's planned mental health center wants to create a better future for Iowans

Another $1.4 million needed for county's center to open this summer

Erin Foster, photographed Jan. 9, is director of the Linn County Mental Health Access Center - a facility that does not
Erin Foster, photographed Jan. 9, is director of the Linn County Mental Health Access Center — a facility that does not exist yet but is planned for 501 13th St. NW in Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Erin Foster hopes that as the first director of the mental health access center in Linn County — and the multicounty East Central Iowa mental health region — she will help shape a better future for Iowans, including her two children.

“When I was younger, no one talked about mental illness or substance abuse,” said Foster, 35, who has a family history of both mental illness and substance abuse. “Not to be corny, but I do things to make life better for my kids.”

The Linn County Mental Health Access Center is expected to open in July. But it could be delayed if the nine-county mental health region — to which Linn pays $8 million annually — doesn’t support contributing over $1 million in operational costs for the regional center.

The center is a resource for anyone in a mental health crisis or with substance abuse issues, diverting them from going to more costly jails and hospital emergency rooms.

Johnson County, which also is a member of the East Central Iowa region, is expected to open an access center this fall. The center is under construction at 270 Southgate Ave. in Iowa City.

Iowa’s 14 mental health regions are not required to help fund access centers, but they are expected by the state to support them.

Linn County has committed $3.5 million in startup funding for the center, which will be at the former Linn County Public Health facility, 501 13th St. NW in Cedar Rapids.

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The East Central Iowa region’s next meeting is Thursday, where members are expected to address funding for regional access centers.

A challenge for the access center — and mental health in Iowa — is that funding for mental health care comes from the Department of Human Services and funding for substance abuse treatment comes from the Iowa Department of Public Health.

“That has such a huge impact on what we’re trying to do at the access center, and for anyone trying to do both mental health treatment and substance use disorder treatment at the same time,” Foster said.

Linn County is in need of an additional $600,000 to offset the net loss of substance abuse services at the access center, which the county learned late last year is not eligible for property tax funding from the Mental Health and Disability Services fund. The substance abuse provider at the access center will be the Area Substance Abuse Council.

Foster gives the state “kudos” for encouraging the development of access centers, which she said will change lives. But she said more assistance is needed if access centers are going to be financially feasible.

“It is a sign of good things to come that the state is understanding these access centers can work wonders in the community. There’s still work to be done at the state level. The biggest piece is the money piece,” she said.

Being the first director of the Linn County access center — possibly the second access center to open in the state after one in Osceola opened last month — is exciting and scary, Foster said.

“There are times you have to sit back and take a deep breath,” she said. “On one hand, it’s nice because you’re the person who can set the bar.”

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Foster graduated from the University of Iowa in 2007, where she studied psychology and substance abuse.

It was there as a junior her eyes were opened to the complex world of substance use disorder when a friend died of substance use.

“While dealing with grief, someone in my life said, ‘You can continue to be sad and angry or you can do something about it,’ ” Foster said.

Before stepping into the role of access center director, Foster was the director of prevention services at the Area Substance Abuse Council, which will be one of four providers lending services to the access center.

The other providers are Foundation 2, the Penn Center and the Abbe Center.

Foster said proponents of the access center are working with law enforcement agencies from all counties in the East Central region in the hopes that officers will be comfortable driving people in crisis across county lines to the Linn County Access Center instead of taking them to hospitals or jails.

“We can talk money, and we can talk business. The importance of the access center is the patient getting the help they need,” Foster said. “If you are in another county, this still is going to be the best, most local place for you to take someone in need.”

Comments: (319) 368-8664; grace.king@thegazette.com

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