‘A place like this is needed now more than ever’: Johnson County’s GuideLink Center prepares to open

The GuideLink Center, 300 Southgate Ave in Iowa City, has 16 individual rooms for crisis stabilization and detoxification treatment. Thursday, Feb. 11. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

The GuideLink Center, a mental health access center in Iowa City that has been in the works for more than a decade, is just days away from opening its doors.

The 18,000 square-foot facility at 300 Southgate Ave will provide rapid assessment, triage and stabilization for adults experiencing a mental health or substance abuse crisis. Those involved with the project describe the center as a “third option” to divert individuals from unnecessary jail or emergency room visits and a way to “fill the gap.”

The Guidelink Center will be able to serve up to 38 individuals at one time, with stays ranging from a few hours to five days. There are 16 individuals rooms for crisis stabilization and detoxification treatment, 12 spots in the crisis observation area and a 10-person sobering unit.

Staff and services will be provided by AbbeHealth, Penn Center, Prelude Abbe Community Mental Health, CommUnity Mobile Crisis and the Johnson County Ambulance Service.

GuideLink Center’s executive director Abbey Ferenzi told Little Village that one of the center’s focuses is giving people choices and options for support all in one place. Ferenzi added that the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more important to open right now as mental health and substance use issues are on the rise.

“The idea was to put these services together under one roof and enhance them, … so people can get what they need in that moment of crisis and not have to go one place and then another place — and also too for the staff here to support each other and their roles,” Ferenzi said. “If there’s a client that needs something beyond substance abuse care, they can see a mental health professional while they’re here because, as we all know, substance abuse and mental health issues can go hand in hand. We want to treat people holistically, and that’s a lot of the vision behind this place.”

“A place like this is needed now more than ever.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds praised the facility’s holistic vision during a tour of the center on Thursday with Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg and Department of Human Services Director Kelly Garcia.

“I know it’s just the beginning, … but this really should be a big celebration because this is incredible, and it is a true role model for other areas of the state and region,” Reynolds said to the group of local elected officials, healthcare experts and individuals representing various service providers.

Gregg, who was a state public defender prior to becoming lieutenant governor, praised the effort to divert people away from the criminal justice system.

“There are so many situations where people in crisis get entangled in the criminal justice system and that may not be the best place for them for a lot of different reasons,” Gregg said. “I appreciate the fact that has been an underlying assumption behind the center and really want to applaud you for the work that you’re doing there because I think it gets the right help in the right places and better aligns our resources.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds and Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg take notes during their visit to the GuideLink Center in Iowa City on Thursday, Feb. 11. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

Dr. Monika Jindal, the GuideLink Center’s medical director, shared with the governor three main areas where the state could help — financial viability, workforce sustainability and access to services through integration of care. Reynolds and Gregg were both taking notes during the discussion.

Because the GuideLink Center represents an innovative model, some existing protocols don’t fit within its model, Jindal said. For example, ambulances in Johnson County are only able to transport people to the emergency room and can’t bring someone to a place like the GuideLink Center, Jindal said.

Mental health services are seen as separate from substance abuse services, which can also create hurdles, Jindal said.

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“When [Iowa Medicaid Enterprise] is trying to ask us what percentage is going to be this and what percentage is going to be that, that’s kind of another component that’s really not integrated,” Jindal said. “It’s not thinking about the whole person and how are we going to take care of this person as they are.”

Dr. Monika Jindal, the GuideLink Center’s medical director, told Gov. Kim Reynolds there are three areas where the state could help the access center — financial viability, workforce sustainability and access to services through integration of care. Reynolds visited the Iowa City access center on Thursday, Feb. 11. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

Jindal added that the center is also concerned about staff burnout given the nature of the work.

“We’re asking this staff to be very nimble,” Jindal said. “We’re asking them to exist in a space that’s doing mental health care in addition to substance abuse care. That’s a really specialized skill set that we’re asking them to have, and we’re asking them to transition back and forth.”

Being able to offer competitive pay and having additional flexibility with hiring are two aspects Jindal mentioned that would be helpful. State protocol requires registered nurses to provide some of GuideLink’s services. Jindal said it would be helpful if the regulations allowed for licensed practical nurses, for example, to provide those same services.

The GuideLink Center’s soft opening will include crisis observation, crisis stabilization and mental health services, project manager Matt Miller told Little Village. Law enforcement and CommUnity’s mobile crisis unit will start dropping off individuals on Monday.

The sobering unit and medical detox will take a few weeks longer to open, Ferezi said. Walk-in services also won’t be available during the soft opening, but Miller said the full opening is only a couple of weeks away.

“We want to limit it only to preserve the quality of services that people are getting,” Ferezi said. “We wouldn’t want to do too much too soon before we’ve worked out some of these kinks and then people not have good experiences. That’s the last thing we want.”

The GuideLink Center’s sobering unit where people can stay overnight. Individuals can leave after their stay or access further services from the center if they wish. Thursday, Feb. 11. Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

Reynolds pointed out during her visit that Iowa will soon have six access centers, with GuideLink Center being the fifth. Iowa’s sixth access center will be the Linn County Mental Health Access Center. The opening of Linn County’s Center has been delayed due to the pandemic and the derecho, but director Erin Foster told Little Village the hope is to do a soft opening by late February or early March.

“We can take this concept [of access centers] and continue to build on it,” Reynolds said, adding that she is “looking forward” to coming back and seeing how other facilities like this can be built in the state.

Ferenzi and Miller are also excited about Johnson County’s center potentially serving as a starting point for other communities in the state looking to build an access center.

“Every community is going to have to tailor it based on what resources they already have, … but they can at least take a look at our model and say, ‘Well, what do we have? How can we expand on that? And how can we even work with these other access centers?’” Miller said. “We definitely have a goal of kind of training the rest of Iowa, if we can, and lending that expertise.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds spoke to Johnson County Supervisor Lisa Green-Douglass following the tour and discussion at the GuideLink Center on Thursday, Feb. 11. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village