Connecticut mental health and addiction services Commissioner Patricia Rehmer is leaving the agency to become a senior vice president at Hartford HealthCare, where she will lead the organization’s Behavioral Health Network.
Rehmer – a highly regarded commissioner who has led the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services since 2009, under two governors – said she began to consider taking another job amid the stress of last year’s gubernatorial election. She reconsidered after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was re-elected, but was ultimately swayed by what she said was a rare opportunity with Hartford HealthCare. A nurse by training, Rehmer spent the first 17 years of her career at the Institute of Living, which is now part of the organization she will oversee.
After word of her impending departure became public Sunday, some people speculated that it was related to the governor’s proposed budget, which was released Wednesday and included $25.5 million in cuts to mental health and substance abuse treatment providers. Rehmer said that’s not the case.
“I’m not leaving because of the budget,” she said during an interview Friday. “I’ve managed difficult budgets before. It had nothing to do with the budget. It’s just time.”
Rehmer will begin working at Hartford HealthCare in April and will become president of the Behavioral Health Network later this year, succeeding Stephen Larcen, who plans to retire. The network includes the Institute of Living in Hartford, Natchaug Hospital in Eastern Connecticut and Rushford in the central part of the state. Hartford HealthCare is also the parent company of Hartford, Backus and Windham hospitals, The Hospital of Central Connecticut and MidState Medical Center.
“Pat Rehmer’s deep knowledge of the behavioral health system and her compassionate advocacy to find creative solutions and develop stronger networks will serve our patients and their families well,” Jeffrey A. Flaks, Hartford HealthCare’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, said in a statement. “We are proud that Ms. Rehmer launched her highly successful career right here at Hartford HealthCare, and we are looking forward to her leadership in the years ahead.”
Hartford HealthCare has been working to integrate behavioral health and primary care, and Rehmer said the organization’s commitment to behavioral health appealed to her, as did the opportunity for expanding access to care as more people gain insurance under the federal health law.
Rehmer said she hopes to use her knowledge of the public system to identify gaps that could be addressed to help improve care in the private sector.
People involved in the mental health system often say that in Connecticut those with Medicaid are better off than those with private insurance when it comes to mental health, since the public system covers a broader range of services.
“That could change if the insurance companies are willing to start to sit at the table, which they appear to be starting to do, and talk about levels of care that are not available in the private system that may be useful,” Rehmer said.
As commissioner, Rehmer drew praise from legislators, advocates for people with mental illness and treatment providers. She has worked to protect the service system from budget cuts, often finding ways to move money around to keep the treatment system from being affected by funding reductions made by lawmakers, and she has been outspoken about the need to recognize and eliminate discrimination against people her department serves.
Her tenure has included handling tight budgets and the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. DMHAS was heavily involved in the behavioral health response in Newtown. The shooting also brought more focus to mental health in Connecticut, and, in some cases, calls for more restrictive laws or policies related to people with mental illness.
Rehmer has spoken out against so-called outpatient commitment laws, in which people who are not hospitalized could be ordered by courts to receive treatment. Connecticut is one of just a handful of states that doesn’t have such a law, but Rehmer has said they’re not enforceable and could set up unrealistic expectations for families of people with mental illness.
Rehmer was appointed commissioner by Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, then reappointed twice by Malloy, a Democrat.
She has said she was impressed by Malloy’s handling of mental health issues. At a press conference shortly after the Newtown shooting, Malloy pushed back at a suggestion that the state had failed by closing mental health facilities. Malloy countered that group homes and other community placements are better than institutions, and that people must recognize that most people with mental illness recover.
“Frankly, I thought we’d written him talking points,” Rehmer said shortly after Malloy’s comments. (She asked the governor; the answer was no.)
Rehmer plans to testify before legislators on the governor’s proposal for her agency’s budget on March 6, her final day as commissioner.
What will she say?
“Although there are significant cuts, and the private nonprofit [providers] clearly have their work cut out for them, I think it could’ve been much worse,” she said. “And frankly, as I look at my sister agencies’ budgets, I can’t complain. I really can’t.”
Rehmer added that the final budget that gets adopted will be the product of negotiations between legislators and the administration, and will differ from what the governor proposed this week. She noted that other officials in the department have strong reputations with legislators, and said she hopes that will help them keep as much funding for mental health and addiction services as possible.