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New KMHS director settles in

Nine months after he announced his retirement, Kitsap Mental Health Services' Executive Director Larry Keller is taking a final lap around the agency he founded thirty years ago. This week the process kicked into high gear, as Keller's successor, Joe Roszak, joined the staff.

"The purpose is to take a look at the complexities of the agency and break it into pieces," Roszak said at the end of his first day on the job. "My goal is to get up to a point where I understand how everything works.

"It's like getting into a car that's moving at highway speed," he said.

While there is an agenda for the ground to be covered, there is no fixed time limit for this orientation period. Keller and Roszak will be joined at the hip for at least a few weeks, during which time they will examine processes and introduce the new director to community members who have a stake in the smooth operation of a mental health system.

This includes introducing Roszak to members of the Community Health Alliance, which includes local representatives from law enforcement, government and business. With the purpose of integrating mental health treatment to all walks of county life, Keller said the alliance has been able to address needs in a more comprehensive manner. This includes posting mental health professionals at local clinics, and establishing plans for an expanded crisis triage center.

"If someone is threatening to throw a chair through a window they may not belong in an emergency room," Keller said. "The triage center will provide a more secure place where they can get the treatment they need and won't tie up the emergency rooms—something that will tie up the health care of the community.

With some exceptions, Keller said the public at large should not fear people with mental illness, who are often antisocial and afraid of any interaction. Rather, it is the mentally ill who become victims—either physically, or from people who seek to take financial advantage.

Roszak, 49, previously headed Oswego County Opportunities, a large agency in upstate New York with authority over a variety of social programs. Mental health was only one of these, so Roszak made this career move—to the much smaller KMHS—to focus his efforts in his area of interest. "My heart and soul is in the field of mental health," he said.

Roszak is married with two elementary school-age children. The family is renting in Central Kitsap while they decide where to buy a house.

"I did a lot of research before I came in for the interview," Roszak said. "The agency's integrity and level of service is quite exceptional. So I welcomed the opportunity to take the leadership position."

Roszak said there is nothing he will change right away.

"I plan to move forward on the initiatives that have already been started," he said. "And there are services that we haven't even thought of yet, that we will be able to accomplish with the team we already have in place."

Keller expects to be on call to answer questions for an indefinite period, but will also maintain a permanent presence on the KMHS campus. One of the agency's most important projects is the construction of a treatment center that will bear his name. The $4 million 16-bed facility will increase the county's ability to accommodate severe cases, providing a place for patients who need short-term stabilization.

KMHS operates with a yearly budget of approximately $20 million, serving about 5,000 patients on various levels. While it is geared toward those who do lack insurance coverage, it is the only local treatment option for any severe mental health disorder; regardless of individual finances.

While some local agencies have scrambled for funds, Keller feels that KMHS is safe from the budget cutters' axe. It is financed wholly by state government, which is solvent for the time being. He expects the funding will continue, and will keep pace if a spike in patient numbers requires a corresponding increase in operating costs.

Keller and Roszak are philosophically compatible. Both agree that mental health care should be characterized as "behavioral health care," since it often includes substance abuse. And both subscribe to a holistic approach, offering treatment of both behavioral and physical ailments in the same location.

Keller's idea of a "perfect world" with regard to health care is one where a mental health worker is present at each facility. This has been partially achieved at KMHS, where the medical director is an internist. "If one of our patients has a physical problem and has no coverage we will treat them then and there," Keller said.

"We should provide treatment of the individual as a whole," Roszak said. "We shouldn't separate mental from physical health treatment. We should bring together the disciplines of psychiatric services and western medical services, to show they are one and the same."

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