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Sen. Blunt Pushes Mental Health Program

March 15, 2019

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 addiction crises.

“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 crises.

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 centers.

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 jail.

“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 Office.

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 program.

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 her life.

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