Published: Nov 19, 2012 11:37 PM EST

FORT MYERS, Fla.- Two of Lee County’s larger not-for-profitorganizations have entered into formal merger discussions that are expected to lead to the formation of a new mental health and substance abuse treatment agency for thousands of individuals and families in Lee County.

Officials with Lee Mental Health Center and Southwest Florida Addiction Services (SWFAS) announced today that they are exploring consolidation of services into one new entity to better serve the community.

A joint committee, consisting of members of the two Boards of Directors, has been meeting to discuss the idea and recently hired Ascendient Healthcare Advisors based in North Carolina to assist with the negotiations. Lee Mental Health Chair Marshall T. Bower is chairing the joint committee and SWFAS Board Treasurer Geoffrey Roepstorff is co-chairing the committee.

“This is all about improved care for patients with one seamless system of behavioral health care and better access to care from multiple locations in Lee County,” Bower and Roepstorff said. “In this environment of stretched health care resources, it makes sense for us to look at an integrated system of care.”

While there may be some cost savings in the proposed merger, both Bower and Roepstorff said that this is not the major reason for the discussions and that any potential savings would be minimal. No layoffs or closing of offices are anticipated, should the merger be finalized.

Lee Mental Health Center is the larger of the two non-profits with a budget of $20 million and 300 employees serving 12,000 patients per year from two locations in Lee County. SWFAS operates with a $9.5 million budget and 150 employees serving 5,000 patients per year from five locations in Lee County and two in Hendry County. The majority of programs offered by both companies are accredited by CARF, the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities.

Should the proposed merger occur, a new name will be selected for the combined organization, Roepstorff and Bower said. The management structure is among many items still being negotiated. A final decision is expected around the first of the year.

Lee Mental Health and SWFAS currently share the same chief financial officer and chief information officer. In addition, Lee Mental Health has an office in the SWFAS Cape Coral location, which also serves as a United Way House. About 800 people received services from both Lee Mental Health and SWFAS in the last year.

News of the potential merger received an early endorsement from Lee Memorial Health System President Jim Nathan. “The healthcare landscape is changing rapidly with increased expectation for more highly coordinated care focused on excellent clinical outcomes. Lee Mental Health and SWFAS are wise to look at how they can provide the best patient care possible as part of our community healthcare system,” Nathan said.

If the proposed merger goes forward, it will bring the history of the two organizations full circle. Lee Mental Health was chartered in 1969. SWFAS traces its roots to 1972 when it was part of Lee Mental Health Center. The alcohol treatment program nearly closed in 1979 when Lee Mental Health felt that the state was underfunding the detoxification portion of the program. A volunteer citizens group chartered themselves as a separate 501(c)(3) and Southwest Florida Alcoholism Services, Inc. (SWFAS) began active management in 1980. The name was changed to Southwest Florida Addiction Services in 1985 to encompass the dual addictions of drugs and alcohol.