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Ousted Behavioral Health chief cites ‘lack of support’ from governor’s office

State’s human services director will take over for Dr. Morgan Medlock
The dramatic architecture of the rotunda of the Colorado State Capitol is enhanced through a fisheye lens. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press file)

The inaugural chief of Colorado’s new Behavioral Health Administration has lasted little more than a year in the position.

Dr. Morgan Medlock, a public health expert who had previously been chief medical officer for the Washington, D.C., Department of Behavioral Health, was in charge of Colorado’s new administration for about 15 months.

Medlock said Tuesday that she left the cabinet position after conflicting with the governor’s chief of staff, Alec Garnett. The former House speaker was hired in November, replacing Polis’ long-time adviser Lisa Kaufmann.

Medlock

“I had a great relationship with the prior chief of staff and things changed in recent months,” Medlock told The Sun. “In the context of some administrative conflict ... I was put in a light where I was asked to essentially give up control of the BHA to another individual. I didn’t feel like I could continue to serve with integrity in light of that.”

Without mentioning Medlock’s name, Gov. Jared Polis’ office announced in a news release Monday that the state’s human services director would take over as interim head of the Behavioral Health Administration, “effective immediately.”

Michelle Barnes, who already oversees the state’s child welfare system and adult protective services as head of the Colorado Department of Human Services, will take on supervision of the Behavioral Health Administration as a nationwide search for a new commissioner takes place.

“The governor’s commitment to ensuring Coloradans have access to mental health and substance use disorder services remains strong,” Polis’ office said.

Medlock, whose post was a new cabinet position, said she also had conflict with other members of the governor’s cabinet. Before the creation of the administration, behavioral health oversight fell mainly under the Colorado Department of Human Services, led by Barnes.

“The model of the BHA was challenging for other cabinet members to endure,” Medlock said. “I faced a lack of support at many levels.”

Medlock said she was recently asked to turn over pieces of day-to-day operations to another person. “There was a movement to minimize and diminish my role,” she said.

A handful of members of Medlock’s executive team had left the administration in recent months, but Medlock said each case was for individual reasons that she could not discuss. “The work we do is very stressful and we are understaffed,” she said. “There were some unique personal situations that attended each of those departures. How people even talked about those things was not accurate.

“There are a lot of stakeholders here who have a lot of intense opinions. Finding that balance can be hard, but I did my best to do that.”

Medlock said she plans to return to her hometown of Dallas. She said she was proud of the administration’s work in releasing Colorado’s first cohesive strategic plan for behavioral health in January, and working to create a directory for people to find behavioral health care. “This vision was bigger than anybody, including me,” she said.

When he appointed Medlock to his cabinet, Polis called it part of the “transformational change” in the state’s behavioral health system.

The governor announced plans to create a new administration focused on mental health in 2020 at the recommendation of a task force that had met for the previous year. The group traveled the state hearing stories of a fragmented system that left people without access to suicide prevention, substance abuse treatment and other mental health care. The group called for a centralized office for mental health to replace the splintered system that included 75 programs spread across three state agencies.

Prior to the new administration, the state’s suicide prevention office was part of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, yet 24-hour, walk-in services for mental health services was overseen by the Colorado Department of Human Services. Substance abuse programs were housed within the human services department, but many were funded by the state Department of Health Care Policy and Financing.

Barnes was chair of that task force. Now, her six-person senior executive team at the human services department will serve as co-interim directors of the department while Barnes takes over the Behavioral Health Administration, the governor’s office said. Polis’ spokesperson Conor Cahill, in response to a question from The Sun about whether Medlock was fired, said “the governor thanks Dr. Medlock for her initial work in establishing a new state agency” and that he is confident in Barnes.

The Behavioral Health Administration was created as Colorado poured $450 million in federal COVID relief funds into mental health services. The BHA so far has invested more than $150 million in services, the governor’s office said.

Medlock, a physician, was chosen in January 2022 to lead a new era for mental health in Colorado. She spent her first two months on the job touring the state’s mental health hospitals, community mental health clinics and substance abuse treatment centers.

“I feel very honored to have served as the inaugural commissioner of the Behavioral Health Administration,” Medlock wrote in a statement she released Tuesday. “When I moved to this great state, I promised we would do this work together, and lean into the power of co-creation to re-imagine behavioral health services that are accessible, meaningful, and trusted.”

In an interview with The Sun last year, Medlock said her first priority was to make sure people know where to go for treatment, a plan that required help from libraries, homeless shelters and doctor’s offices. She also had ambitions to create a system in which people could receive mental health and substance abuse treatment in the same clinics.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.