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Crisis Centers to Open by Spring

Arkansans anticipate success of new mental health programs

State officials expect Arkansas’ four crisis stabilization units, where people experiencing mental health emergencies can receive treatment, to open before May.

The Arkansas Legislature passed Act 423, the law that established the units, in March of last year. The bill only allotted enough funding for three units, but four counties applied for the money to initiate units in their areas. Gov. Asa Hutchinson devoted an additional $1.4 million to create a fourth unit, giving Sebastian, Craighead, Washington and Pulaski counties crisis centers.

“In the end, they were all worthy,” said Kathryn Griffin, the state’s justice reinvestment coordinator.

In total, the state allotted $6.4 million to create the units. The money will cover their operational expenses, including staff. The state granted funding to the units through the fiscal 2018 budget, which will end in June, providing for the units for one year, Griffin said.

“All four CSUs have the same arrangement as outlined in Act 423,” Griffin said. “The counties or CSUs pay for the bricks and mortar and maintenance of those facilities. The state pays for operating expenses.”

Pulaski County will pay $1,596,000 to its CSU annually, said Lisa Evans, Pulaski County unit director.

The idea, according to Griffin, is to try and divert people with mental health problems from jails and prisons. In Arkansas, someone with a mental health crisis is 3.3 times more likely to be incarcerated than taken to a hospital, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center.

“This whole process is very data-driven,” Griffin said. “How many people are we helping, and how much money are we saving?”

Under the model that the act describes, there will be Crisis Intervention Teams in place in each of the regions where units will be stationed. The CIT may include police officers, mental health professionals, health care providers and jail personnel. People with mental illnesses or people who have relatives or close friends with mental illnesses will serve on the team to advise the group. The maximum number of hours a person can be required to stay at a unit is 72 hours.

The units are acting as pilot programs for the rest of the state, said J.R. Davis, the governor’s communications director. State officials hope to implement as many as eight units across the state, Griffin said.

All four units are expected to have 16 beds for patients. Unit directors will try to keep a few beds open at all times to avoid having to turn patients away, Evans said.

But if all beds are full, the CITs will be forced to do “the same thing that happens now,” Griffin said. The officers will have to choose whether to take the patient to the hospital or to jail.

“Right now, there’s very little options for what the police can do,” Evans said.

The units will accept private-pay insurance, Medicaid and Arkansas Works payment plans, Griffin said. If patients are uninsured or underinsured, the units’ social workers will try to get them on Medicaid, Evans said.

All four units will open at different times, Griffin said. Sebastian County’s unit is scheduled to open on or before Feb. 22. It will be the first unit to open.

Evans expects the Pulaski County unit to open March 1, but the opening date could change, she said. To be ready to open, Evans has to hire a staff that will include about 30 people who will work either part time or full time.  She will also need to write the procedures for the unit.

State Rep. Justin Boyd, who wrote the law establishing mental health courts in Arkansas, hopes there will be a crossover between the mental health courts and the units, which are both designed to keep people with mental health disorders out of jails and prisons.

Boyd wants the state to make an effort to do “the right thing with people who have mental illness and not just separate them from society and imprison them when they really need treatment,” he said.

Boyd became passionate about mental health care after his grandmother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. There were times when the legal system intervened when what she really needed was health care, he said.

The state needs to keep from “jailing them because we don’t have anything else to do with them,” Boyd said.

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