County to head into mental health transition while missing pivotal position


WALLA WALLA — The county is once again without a psychiatrist to treat eligible Medicaid patients, but those in charge are hopeful the hole will soon be plugged. In the meantime, a solid umbrella of staffing is in place to weather the storm, said Rick Weaver, executive director of Central Washington Comprehensive Mental Health.

Comprehensive will take over Walla Walla County mental health services on July 1.

Dr. Daniel Varnell left county employment in May to join staff at Reliance Health Systems, which has offices in Tri-Cities and Walla Walla. Varnell had been the county’s psychiatrist after leaving Blue Mountain Medical Group not long upon returning to his hometown of Walla Walla eight years ago.

Weaver said Varnell’s departure came as a surprise. Although Varnell initially indicated he would join Comprehensive’s team upon transition, he seemed uncomfortable with a number of upcoming changes, Weaver said Monday.

“My assumption is he got a better offer,” said Harvey Crowder, interim director of Walla Walla County Department of Community Health. “This caught us flat-footed.”

Already picking up the slack, however, are two “very experienced” mental health nurse practitioners who work for Comprehensive and currently treat county patients, Weaver said. “Everyone is working together really well. The (county) therapists have been onboard, working with clients to make it as seamless as possible. No one should go without, that’s the good news.”

Since other Comprehensive offices were able to absorb some of the Walla Walla-based clerical duties, that leaves room to increase the number of employees who provide direct client and prescribing services, he added. “We’re still recruiting for additional people, another psychiatrist and another nurse practitioner. Then we should be in pretty good shape.”

Weaver said he anticipates eventually increasing Comprehensive’s Walla Walla office staff by about 10 percent, including the addition of crisis responders, therapists and peer counselors.

His team is ready to jump in as soon as the light turns to green next month, Weaver added. “There will be bumps, I’m sure, but for the most part it will be really smooth. People will start seeing more services.”


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