Blount Memorial Hospital Counseling Center

Blount Memorial Hospital Counseling Center will close its doors on July 3.

Blount Memorial Hospital’s CONCERN and Counseling Center will close its doors July 3 — a shuttering that a hospital official said is the result of years-long financial losses.

“This is a service we have provided to the community at a financial loss for several years,” Public Relations Manager Jennie Bounds emailed late Monday. “And as hospitals like ours continue to experience economic challenges due to state and federal impacts, unrelated to COVID-19, we simply can’t continue to operate as we have.”

Bounds said talks about closing the center are not new.

“This closure is not related to COVID-19,” she said. “It is something we’ve been looking at for the last several years, as much has changed in the way that employee assistance programs (EAPs) are delivered today.”

CONCERN (which is not an acronym) served as Blount County government’s EAP from October 1982 until January 2020 after the County Commission voted in December to switch providers and move forward with CuraLinc Healthcare.

EAPs offer resources to county employees who are experiencing personal hardships such as marital, mental or financial problems that could affect their work performances.

Switching from CONCERN to CuraLinc gave county employees access to online and phone treatment — a service CONCERN did not offer — while also saving the county more than $26,000 a year, according to a December presentation by Cole Harris from CBIZ Benefits, the county’s insurance broker.

Despite this, Bounds said the county’s switch in EAPs, like COVID-19, also did not contribute to the decision to shut the center down. The closure, Bounds said, was due only to changes in the expectations of EAPs.

“We are the last health system to have provided face-to-face EAP services, as most others have gone to a telephonic offering,” she said.

But county employees aren’t the only population using the center. In 2005, CONCERN and Counseling added private individual, couples and family counseling to its services.

Now, Bounds said, the center has an annual volume of 3,670 visits.

One of these private patients, Linda, who withheld her last name for anonymity, said she believes getting rid of BMH’s counseling resource during a pandemic is “lousy timing.”

“I think it’s wrong,” she said. “Maybe they’re not making you enough money, but this is a time when their services are needed more than any other time — with all this country has had to deal with and individuals have had to deal with.”

Linda, who began counseling at Blount Memorial’s CONCERN and Counseling Center eight years ago, said she canceled several appointments with her counselor because of the coronavirus lockdown. When she called to schedule an appointment last week, her counselor gave her the news.

“I was just like, ‘You have got to be kidding me,’” Linda said. “The hospital, according to what she was telling me, was shutting (the center) down because they were losing money.”

Bounds said patients also are getting letters notifying them of the closure and that therapists are making “recommendations to counseling services based on the patient’s individual situations and needs.”

But for Linda, starting over with a new therapist during a time when the world is plagued with sickness and lack of resources is less than satisfactory.

“It just upset me because when you are going to counseling of any kind, consistency and someone you feel comfortable talking to is a big part of it,” Linda said. “Then to sit there and say, ‘We’re going to close it down because they’re not making us enough money,’ just is like a slap in the face.”

Blount Memorial officials admit the closure is not ideal.

“Closing any service is hard at any time that you choose to do it, as it affects people in different ways,” Bounds said. “The impacts and potential impacts of COVID-19 are present in areas all across the nation; however, there also are day-to-day stressors or challenges, such as health, medical or relationship issues; grief; financial strains; and the loss of a job, among many others.”

Linda, who said she understands the center’s financial strain, still wishes the BMH could have done more to keep the center open.

“Blount Memorial could not have done this at a worse time,” she said. “We’re talking about a year that’s been really hard on people overall — health-wise, emotion-wise, just everything across the board. This to me is just a lousy time to say we’re going to do away with this. There should be something they could do.”

Follow @sshreports on Twitter for more from county government reporter Shelby Harris.

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