After a nationwide search, the Missouri Mental Health Commission has chosen a familiar face to lead the state Department of Mental Health. Acting Director Valerie Huhn was selected by the commission to permanently head the agency.

Valerie Huhn (Photo courtesy of Missouri Department of Mental Health)

Huhn has been part of the agency’s management team since 2014 and has been with the department since 2000.

The agency has roughly 7,500 workers and 30,000 contracted community workers serving about 170,000 Missourians with mental illness, developmental disabilities and substance use disorders.

About one dozen people applied for the position. Commission Chair, Teresa Coyan, tells Missourinet what set Huhn apart from the other candidates.

“She knows a lot of the historic challenges of the department,” says Coyan. “She has experience working even at the federal level and understanding some new opportunities to find solutions for our state. And so, knowing that she kind of already has some things in motion, I feel like with her being director, really the whole commission felt a lot of momentum with some of the funding that’s going to be coming into our state with some of the programs that are kind of on the cusp of being implemented. There are workforce challenges and challenges that I think that many departments are faced with right now. But we felt so strong about her and that leadership role and her passion and, you know, kind of all of the different things colliding at the same time with this new funding and, and possibility of increased wages for some of the workers. There’s just a lot of opportunity kind of at the cusp. And we felt like with her leadership, her experience and her passion, it was just a good combination to continue momentum in that department.”

One item Coyan says the commission is interested in is reducing the waiting list for services for those with disabilities.

“Funding has been an issue in the past,” says Coyan. “And a lot of times, it’s with those with developmental disabilities and maybe another diagnosis as well. And so it’s the patients that have multiple health issues, not just maybe a disability, but they need higher level of care, likely in a placement spot. And so in the past, it’s been more of an issue around not having enough spots for them. And that’s created the waitlist because of maybe some kind of funding challenge. Most recently, it’s been more about not having enough workers to keep the spots available. And so we actually have had the funding in place to minimize the waitlist. And so we can see, you know, as we have more funding put toward wages, hopefully that will solve some of those problems with the waitlist.”

Missourinet has contacted the department requesting information about how long the wait list is and the average wait time.

To become the permanent director, Coyan says the Missouri Senate must confirm the appointment. Huhn would replace Mark Stringer, who officially retires at the end of this year.

Gov. Mike Parson plans to hold a press conference Wednesday to announce the new Directors of the Missouri Department of Mental Health and the Missouri Department of Revenue.

To listen to the Show Me Today interview with Teresa Coyan, click below.

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