The leader of Colorado’s newly created Behavioral Health Administration has been replaced just shy of 15 months on the job, Gov. Jared Polis announced Monday.
Dr. Morgan Medlock, who took became the administration commissioner on Jan. 18, 2022, is set to be replaced on an interim basis by Michelle Barnes, currently the executive director of the Department of Human Services, Polis’ announcement said.
Polis’ announcement didn’t mention Medlock or why she is no longer in the position.
In a statement Tuesday, Polis spokesman Conor Cahill said, “The Governor thanks Dr. Medlock for her initial work in establishing a new state agency. The Governor looks forward to conducting a nationwide search and is optimistic and confident in Interim Director Barnes and the future of the BHA.”
In Monday’s announcement, Polis said that the Behavioral Health Administration was “developed during a crucial time of need in our state. The BHA has invested over $150 million in behavioral health services while improving accountability, and we are getting ready for the next phase.”
A nationwide search for the new commissioner will begin in the coming weeks.
Barnes will be assisted by her senior executive team of Clint Woodruff, Anne-Marie Braga, Pedro Almeida, Kevin Neimond, Perry May, and Kathryn Morrison, who will be making the leadership decisions as co-interim directors for the Department of Human Services during this period, the governor’s office said.
Medlock previously served as chief medical officer and director of crisis and emergency services for the Washington, DC Department of Behavioral Health.
The Behavioral Health Administration was created by legislation 2021 with a start date of July 1, 2022.
The agency has been marked by controversy in the past year. Most recently, an investigation by the Colorado Springs Gazette revealed the office spent $61 million to improve clinical staffing at the state’s two mental hospitals, resulting in the hiring of just four nurses. Most of the money went to other purposes, including “grants for improving the workforce of community providers, repaying loans for behavioral health care providers, expanding peer support programs and other initiatives.”
The investigation also revealed that with almost half the nursing positions at the two hospitals in Pueblo and Fort Logan vacant, “more individuals than ever are languishing in jails cells in Colorado while they wait for court-ordered mental health treatment to restore them to competency so they can stand trial.”
As of last week, according to the Gazette, “449 individuals incarcerated in jails in the state were in need of restoration treatment. The wait list reached an all-time high last month, despite state officials promising three years ago that nobody should have to wait in jail for more than 28 days for mental health restoration if they’ve been deemed incompetent for trial.”
The BHA is not a stand-alone cabinet-level agency. Instead, it’s part of the Department of Human Services. While Polis made Medlock part of his cabinet last year, he could not make the BHA a cabinet-level agency because the state Constitution limits the number of cabinet-level agencies to 20. The governor chose the Department of Early Childhood as the state’s 20th principal agency.
The BHA is the “single entity responsible for driving coordination and collaboration across state agencies to address behavioral health needs,” according to its website.
The BHA is supposed to provide leadership, coordination and standardization across nearly 100 existing programs housed in a multitude of state agencies. However, those programs would remain in their original agencies and with oversight to those agencies, leading to concerns from legislative Joint Budget Committee staff in 2021 that the BHA was little more than another level of bureaucracy.