Dec 9, 2021 - Politics

State mental health agency leader resigns amid scrutiny

 Robert Werthwein. Photo: Marc Piscotty via COLab
Robert Werthwein. Photo: Marc Piscotty via COLab

Colorado's behavioral health leader is resigning amid intense scrutiny about massive gaps in the state's mental health safety net.

Driving the news: Robert Werthwein, the Polis administration's director of the Office of Behavioral Health, sent an email to employees and outside partners Tuesday saying he would step down at the end of February 2022 to seek a position outside the agency, according to an email obtained by Axios.

  • The public announcement came two days after an investigation by the Colorado News Collaborative found Colorado's community mental health centers are receiving noncompete contracts, over-billing the state and treating fewer clients during the pandemic despite a burgeoning need.
  • Just two hours before Werthwein announced his resignation, advocacy organizations sent a letter to Gov. Jared Polis demanding wholesale changes to the state's mental health system, based in part on the investigation's findings.

What he's saying: Werthwein, a nine-year veteran of the Department of Human Services, did not address the controversy in his resignation letter, but defended his efforts.

  • "I am very proud of the work this team has done in partnership with all of you to improve the lives of Coloradans," he wrote.
  • Werthwein was not immediately available for an interview.

Conor Cahill, a spokesperson for Polis, didn't directly respond to questions about the resignation.

  • He sent a statement to Axios on Wednesday evening, calling Werthwein "a valued member of the administration whose expertise and personal struggle have informed the work of the behavioral mental health task force and our day-to-day work to serve our most vulnerable populations."

The big picture: The leadership change comes at a point of significant turmoil and transition.

  • Both deputy behavioral health directors under Werthwein departed in the last two months for other positions.
  • Moreover, the Polis administration is creating a new agency, the Behavioral Health Administration, that will shuffle the duties of the current office and better align mental health and drug abuse services.
  • The state is now seeking a person to lead the new administration and someone to fill Werthwein's position.

Context: A 2019 law created the new administration, which is expected to take final form by July 1. Polis requested $10 million in his budget proposal for behavioral health, according to legislative documents.

What to watch: The scrutiny facing the Polis administration's work on mental health and the problems in the current system is mounting.

  • The bipartisan legislative Joint Budget Committee fired dozens of questions toward the agency in a briefing Wednesday, seeking information on the state's inadequate system and what it would take to fix it.
  • State Sen. Bob Rankin (R-Carbondale) compared the vastness of the problems to putting a finger in a flood dike, saying "we have all realized this is a crisis."

What's next: Werthwein and other Polis administration officials are scheduled to appear before lawmakers to answer questions next week.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that Robert Werthwein sent an email on Tuesday to outside partners publicly sharing news of his resignation. It also adds a comment from Conor Cahill, a spokesperson for Gov. Jared Polis.

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