WASHINGTON - Sen.
Roy Blunt of Missouri and a bipartisan group of co-sponsors are pushing to
extend a federal pilot program that mental health professionals say has
transformed the way they deal with people suffering from behavioral health and
“What we have been able to accomplish,” said Laura
Heebner, executive vice president of Missouri’s Compass Health Network, “has
been nothing short of astonishing.”
But federal support for the “Excellence in Mental
Health and Addiction Treatment Expansion Act” begins running out in April for
two states, and in July for Missouri and five other states that are part of a
$1 billion pilot project.
The pilot program is aimed at treating mental
illness in community health centers the same way other illnesses are treated,
and provides federal aid to hospitals and law enforcement agencies who are
often the first to confront people suffering from mental health and addiction
Blunt, a Republican, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.,
have been primary sponsors of the project, which they say is not designed to
create a new federal program, but to demonstrate to states that they can save
lives and money if they integrate mental health treatment into community health
The program provides instantaneous access to
mental health professionals when sheriffs, police officers or emergency room
health care professionals see people who could use those services instead of
“Our effort is to put together enough information
so it becomes obvious that … it is the right thing to do (so) that police and
emergency rooms should not have to become the de facto mental health delivery
systems in the country. Nobody benefits from that,” Blunt said.
Blunt, Stabenow and Reps. Doris Matsui, D-Calif.,
and Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., are sponsoring legislation to not only extend
the program in the eight current pilot states, but to extend it to 11 others.
An estimated cost has not yet been determined by the Congressional Budget
Heebner said she’s talking with state mental
health officials to extend the program should federal support lapse. She said
her company has been able to hire about 500 additional mental health
professionals in Missouri. She said suicides are down 70 percent over last year
in the counties they serve.
Compass has taken about 2,700 referrals for people
suffering from mental illness episodes from law enforcement officials, Heebner
said, adding: “We are tackling the opioid epidemic head on” through the
In Missouri and elsewhere, the pilot project has
equipped law enforcement offices with computers that officers use to link
people in distress with online consultations with mental health officials. That
cuts down on the wait time for treatment from weeks to hours, and it frees
jails from housing people who would more benefit from behavioral health
treatment, local officials who said.
James Willyard, assistant police chief in Pryor,
Okla., said the program has allowed his department to cut down response times,
“keeping people out of jail and into the treatment they need.
“The officers can take that tablet to the scene
and let that person who is needing treatment talk to a clinician,” Willyard
said of his 27-officer department. “Now we can literally go to a scene, let them
talk to a clinician, take them to a treatment facility and be back out on the
street in 30 minutes.”
Dea Duggan, 39, of Buffalo, N.Y., who suffered
from mental illness and substance abuse and lost custody of her four children,
said that walking into a community health center under the pilot program saved