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Denver park ranger Caronia DiStefano and Kayla Bauer, a WellPower mental health clinician, check on Angel Caranza and Kiki, who have been staying under a structure of tree branches in west Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Two of Colorado’s community mental health centers will merge in July, creating the largest behavioral health center in the state. 

WellPower, which provides mental health services and homeless outreach in Denver, is combining with Jefferson Center, the safety-net mental health organization for Jefferson, Clear Creek and Gilpin counties. 

Together, the two have almost 2,000 employees and serve about 48,000 people per year. The centers have mobile medication-assisted treatment for patients addicted to opioids, walk-in crisis centers and outreach programs that send mental health professionals out with RTD workers, law enforcement and park rangers

By combining, the centers will be able to offer a longer list of addiction and mental health programs, said Kiara Kuenzler, CEO of Jefferson Center. The partnership allows the centers to combine technology processes and other expenses, as well as fill gaps in specialized care. 

She called the merger a “bold response” to Colorado’s behavioral health crisis, in which suicide is the leading cause of death for young people and deaths attributed to fentanyl have skyrocketed. “We are confident that the strengths of our two organizations combined will enable us to meet the needs of our communities in a way that has never been done before in Colorado,” she said in an email announcing the merger Thursday. “By coming together, we can meet the needs of our community faster and more effectively than we could ever do alone.”

Kiara Kuenzler is president and CEO at Jefferson Center for Mental Health. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

The merger made sense now because of recent changes in Colorado’s behavioral health system, including a restructuring of how community mental health centers are regulated and funded. The state’s 17 regional mental health centers have been concerned that they will lose funding as Colorado revamps the system, opening it up to competition with private behavioral health entities. The centers, which have long operated under no-bid contracts with the state Medicaid division, have been under intense scrutiny in the past couple of years. 

“We must adapt for the future,” said Dr. Carl Clark, CEO of WellPower, which was formerly the Mental Health Center of Denver. “We believe that joining our two organizations is a powerful solution.”

Jefferson Center served more than 26,000 people in 2022 and has a budget of about $90 million. WellPower, which served about 22,000 people, has a budget of nearly $144 million.

Kuenzler will serve as president of the new organization, while Clark will be CEO until his retirement. The joint organization will operate under the WellPower name.

Vincent Atchity, president of the advocacy organization Mental Health Colorado, said he hoped the merger of two “key players” would lead to increased access to housing services and other supports, as well as “technologies that are essential to people’s well-being —preventing crises, improving crisis response, while reducing harm, criminalization, and over-reliance upon law enforcement and the jails.”

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...