Federal support for mental health crisis teams

Senior Advisor Gene Sperling speaks during an American Rescue Plan Workforce Summit. (Photo from AP file/Susan Walsh)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Biden administration officials said that a police response is often an inadequate solution to mental health crises, and on Monday announced financial support for expanding mobile crisis intervention teams in Oregon.

This Pacific Northwest state, which pioneered the use of unarmed intervention teams, was the first to receive aid under President Joe Biden’s American bailout plan.

The new Medicaid-backed plan will allow Oregon to provide and expand community-based stabilization services for individuals experiencing mental health and/or drug crises statewide by connecting them with a behavioral health specialist, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said in an opinion.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra encouraged other states to take advantage of the funding opportunity.

All too often, the police are called to help people with mental health problems. And all too often they lead to tragic results.

Gene Sperling, a senior Biden adviser and coordinator of America’s $1.9 trillion bailout plan, said Biden often talks about how the US needs to be more thoughtful in responding to many emergencies.

“Simply reflexively shifting all of the burden onto police departments and law enforcement often overwhelms them and is often not the best and most effective response,” Sperling said. “That’s the important thing about it. It … emphasizes the importance of the role of psychologists and sociologists, mental health professionals and people of learned experience in providing that answer.”

Federal health officials said that under the program, 85 cents of every dollar spent by states to expand these services and used by Medicaid-covered individuals will be paid by the federal government. According to the Oregon Health Authority, there are more than 1.4 million Medicaid recipients in Oregon. That’s nearly a third of the state’s 4.1 million residents.

An example of such a program exists in Eugene, Oregon, where teams of paramedics and behavioral medicine specialists are taking 911 mental health calls off the hands of uniformed and armed officers.

The Eugene program is called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, or CAHOOTS. CAHOOTS teams, not dispatched to call violent situations, handled 24,000 calls in 2019.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said Monday’s announcement means Oregon is the first state to qualify for an 85% higher state Medicaid reimbursement rate for the next three years to reimburse mobile crisis services, that would be delivered to Medicaid beneficiaries.

“This increased federal investment makes it much easier and less expensive for local communities to build CAHOOTS-like programs that are tailored to their needs,” Wyden said.

At a telephone press conference with Sperling, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and federal officials, Wyden said he had a personal interest because his late brother Jeff had schizophrenia.

“For years, the Wyden family would go to bed at night — my brother on the street — and we all worried if he might hurt himself or someone else,” Wyden said.

Brown said the federal investment “will be a game changer.”

“These teams will include all the services, support and treatment that people need and can be provided in a timely manner,” she said. “They can be available anywhere, anytime when a person is going through a mental health crisis.”

The teams will complement the new national mental health crisis/suicide hotline 988, which is ready to be deployed at the request of call centers, Brown said.

With the higher state compliance of 85%, Oregon expects to receive $1.3 million from April 1 through June 30, 2023 “based on our very preliminary estimates,” said Liz Gharst, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Health Authority .

“Providing prompt and appropriate care to someone in crisis can reduce the need for costly inpatient services, and this new option will help Oregon expand access to behavioral health professionals as the first point of contact for someone in crisis,” Gharst said.

Community-based mobile crisis intervention services must be made available to all Oregonians regardless of insurance status, she said.

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