NHCW Health Care Hero: Brian Barnes

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Like most superheroes, Brian Barnes has an origin story. It may not be as dramatic as the ones you’ve read in comics, but the lines that connect his past experiences to who he is, what he does, and his motivations today are just as bold and clear.

As Central City Concern’s (CCC) associate director for behavioral health in primary care, Brian oversees parts of Old Town Clinic’s (OTC) care continuum that support individuals struggling with mental health and substance abuse. Brian ensures our patients not only receive the care they need, but that they receive the very best we can offer. His colleagues attest to his singular drive to provide a level of care to our patients—many of whom live on the margins—where they may have received less than excellent care, but certainly deserve the best.

“Brian goes above and beyond consistently and tirelessly to make sure patients get the right kind of care at the right time, regardless of barriers,” said a colleague. “He offers innovative methods when doors to access appear closed. He develops seamless pathways for patients to reduce barriers.”

Brian began to carve out a reputation for his tenacity and relentlessness in finding solutions for his patients’ care.

The extra effort is absolutely worth it to Brian. He’s seen up close how mental health and addiction care can let someone down. He was once the one receiving it.

“I was a client of substance use disorder treatment and mental health services for many years and at many levels of care,” Brian shares. “I experienced a number of professionals who were trying to help me but either weren’t trained or didn’t care enough to get to the root causes of my problems, even when I was in a very vulnerable place.”

Brian couldn’t help but think that if he found himself in this line of work, he would do things differently. Better, even. “It felt obvious to me what I needed to do: work in a position where I could continually try to increase the quality of substance use disorder treatment and mental health services.”

He began pursuing this idea that continued to stick with him. First came the alcohol and drug treatment counseling certification and job as a counselor in a local opioid treatment program. Then the Master of Social Work degree in order to provide mental health services. Then came an internship with CCC, where he saw how effective integrated care could be while working as a counselor in OTRC.

As he moved through his internship, his counseling position, and then into a role as a CCC clinical supervisor, Brian began to carve out a reputation for his tenacity and relentlessness in finding solutions for his patients’ care. When he was receiving care, he felt his service providers too often stopped when they saw even a shadow of a barrier.

“We don’t just settle with ‘no.’ We see gaps and we bridge them.”

While his experience with the treatment system motivates him, his bridge-building instincts were honed in a different part of his past: his tenure as a bank vice-president who oversaw collections and foreclosures. In an industry widely reviled for its mercilessness, Brian reoriented his department to help, not harm, homeowners. They didn’t want to take their homes, he says. Rather, his staff acted as counselors, assessing how they could find a mutually beneficial resolution with their customers.

"Are our patients willing to do the work of their treatment plan? Do they have the ability? If the answer is ‘no’ to either, then the question becomes, ‘What do we need to do to fill that gap?’"

“If we could learn from them whether they had or didn’t have—willingness to pay or ability to pay—then we’d be able to address the deficit,” Brian says. “I see that applied to what we’re doing here. Are our patients willing to do the work of their treatment plan? Do they have the ability? If the answer is ‘no’ to either, then the question becomes, ‘What do we need to do to fill that gap?’”

Brian has gone to extraordinary lengths to fill that gap for patients who would otherwise be lost in the system. He does this by coordinating care across multiple organizations, weaving together innovative low-barrier treatment plans tailored to a patient’s very complex and very unique situation, arranging last-minute transportation, and more. It’s not easy, but Brian believes it’s absolutely worthwhile.

When Brian relied on the system, it came up short in many ways. However, there were a couple of professionals who demonstrated unconditional care, concern, and supportive engagement. They are his role models. Now that he’s part of the system, he’s committed to going the extra mile for the sake of his patients.

“This is the most stretched I’ve ever felt in any career. But I expected this work to be difficult. That’s why I’m doing it,” Brian says. “For many people, there’s nowhere else to go beyond Old Town Clinic. That’s what we’re here for. And it works.”