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State poised for ‘monumental’ shift in the handling of mentally ill, lawmakers say

Utah Legislature ‘put its money where its mouth is’ to fund new mental health crisis center system

SHARE State poised for ‘monumental’ shift in the handling of mentally ill, lawmakers say

Eddy Helmer, photographed in December 2019, at the Davis County Receiving Center and is part of a pilot program, funded through a federal grant, state funds and with the help of Davis Behavioral Health.

Mike Anderson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers and mental health advocates say Utah’s mental health system will be transformed in a “monumental” and “historic” way thanks to more than $23 million in funding approved by the Legislature.

The money could not only give better treatment options for people with mental illness, but also help alleviate burdens on emergency rooms, courtrooms, 911 dispatchers, jails and prisons, and perhaps even Utah’s homeless system.

“This will be a transformational shift,” said Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, a lawmaker who spearheaded these efforts during the legislative session. “It’s the biggest shift in treatment in, I’d say, 50 years, in terms of how we address mental health issues — and the biggest change in state history as it relates to people in crisis.”

Despite facing a budget challenges legislative leaders blamed on the failure of tax reform, Eliason successfully lobbied to funnel more than $10.8 million in ongoing money and $5.9 million in one-time money into HB32 to help build several new “crisis centers” up and down the Wasatch Front. Those 24-hour facilities would be where people experiencing mental health episodes in need of emergency care could go, rather than being sent to hospital emergency rooms or jail cells.

HB32 also seeks to expand “mobile outreach teams,” or what Eliason has called “mental health ambulances,” into rural parts of Utah. The teams could meet people experiencing crisis in their homes or on the streets for treatment, rather than relying on police for emergency response.

Additionally, lawmakers approved $6.3 million in ongoing money for HB35 to open about 30 mothballed beds at the Utah State Hospital. The aim, Eliason said, is to free up beds currently occupied in the state’s prison and jail systems.

Eliason called the approval a “substantial” investment in mental health — and perhaps the largest infusion of ongoing money prioritized in the 2020 session.

“When it comes to mental health priorities, the Legislature put their money where their mouth is this session,” Eliason said. “There was demonstrable action. Those two main bills went through the entire process on a bipartisan, unanimous basis.”

Rob Wesemann, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness Utah, agreed the Utah Legislature showed “commitment” to mental illness.

“(The crisis centers) have really shown to make a difference in communities and to the lives of people experiencing mental illness, their families and local law enforcement agencies,” he said. “It absolutely is a best practice, and I agree with (Eliason). This will really result in tangible change in our community.”

Wesemann said his organization is “so excited” to see crisis centers begin to be built and funded in Utah, pointing to successes in other areas like Maricopa County, Arizona, where officials estimate it’s saved millions in health care and emergency services costs.

The model starts with a “crisis call center,” a hub where dispatchers handle calls, and if needed, dispatch mobile crisis teams to meet patients at their homes or in the streets to help lessen the burden on local police. It also includes walk-in 24-hour “crisis stabilization” facilities to provide specialized treatment with an on-site psychiatrist or pharmacy so patients don’t have to wait months to schedule an appointment with a therapist or be written a prescription for medication.

Davis County is already laying the groundwork in Utah for the new model. In December, the county opened a Behavioral Health Receiving Center as part of a pilot program.

“The funding that the Legislature is putting toward these mental health bills are indicative of our commitment to treating mental health like any other health issue, not criminalizing somebody with a mental health issue,” Eliason said.

Now that the Legislature has appropriated money, Eliason said it will be up to individual counties that are eligible — Washington, Utah, Salt Lake, Davis and Weber — to site the facilities and donate land. The $5.9 million in one-time money can be used for construction or remodeling to make way for the new crisis centers.

As for opening up 30 beds at the Utah State Hospital, Wesemann said that may not “sound like much, but when you really look at the number of individuals that need the highest level of care, it gives us a place to start.”

Mentally ill Utahns who would be better served at the state hospital in Provo have been stuck in Utah’s jail and prison system due to lack of space. Wesemann said the investment in that extra capacity shows “we’re really trying to sort out what our true needs are in our community, and any additional resources we can get will help us” get some of Utah’s most vulnerable the help they need.

“And I really think we’re just beginning,” Wesemann said, pointing to recent Medicaid expansion as another way lawmakers have committed to getting more Utahns more resources. “We’re extremely pleased with the commitment that seems to have been shown by legislators.”

Legislative leaders including House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, and House Majority Assistant Whip Val Peterson, said lawmakers saw Eliason’s bills as worthwhile investments in Utah’s future, especially after pouring millions into the state’s new homeless resource centers.

Peterson, R-Orem, called Eliason’s crisis centers bill a “monumental bill” and the “crown jewel” of mental health efforts this session. Gibson, R-Mapleton, said emergency rooms and homeless services “shouldn’t be places for the mentally ill to clog up” and he was happy “for the opportunity to get that inertia, that momentum, to give them the help they need.”

Gov. Gary Herbert on the final day of the session Thursday applauded lawmakers for their investment.

“It’s something we probably, over time, have not given as much attention to,” Herbert said. “We have more money being put in for mental health, so the resources are going (in), and I think that’s very appropriate.

“Again, you can only (use) so many dollars, it’s finite, but I like the trend and I like the fact it’s rising up on the Legislature’s list of priorities,” Herbert added. “It’s good news for the future.”