Colorado Mental Health Experts Propose Changes to Hickenlooper's Plan

    Posted 02/19/2013

    Less than two months after Gov. John Hickenlooper announced a plan to spend $7.5 million to open new mental health crisis centers, experts have offered an alternative, saying the funds could be better spent strengthening Colorado's existing centers and expanding programs in rural areas.

    Hickenlooper and the Colorado Department of Human Services revealed a five-point plan to revamp Colorado's mental health services in response to this summer's deadly shootings at an Aurora movie theater. In addition to expanding hospital capacity and community care, the $18.5 million plan included creating five new crisis stabilization centers and proposed an application process to determine where to locate them.

    Concerned that rural communities would not be considered for the new centers, leaders of the state's 17 existing community mental health centers worked with the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council to develop an alternative proposal.

    "We didn't want to focus only on areas that were big enough to have a full-blown crisis center," said council chief executive George DelGrosso. "We wanted to add other alternatives that meet the needs of individual communities."

    The proposal requests an additional $1.27 million, on top of the $7.5 million requested by the governor, that the group says can be used to create 13 crisis- stabilization units instead of five. The centers would use the money to create a consistent network of walk-in crisis units, where patients will be able to stay for up to five days, building off of services and similar units that already exist.

    A copy of the four-page proposal was submitted to Hickenlooper, the department of human services and the Joint Budget Committee late last week.

    Representatives from all three agencies said they are eager to review the recommendations.

    While all 17 centers currently offer some form of a 24/7 emergency hotline, not all areas in the state have a facility that offers walk-in services for patients with urgent mental health concerns. DelGrosso said establishing a statewide system of crisis stabilization units could reduce the number of patients with psychiatric needs who are sent to emergency rooms or jails.

    "We already have some of the pieces and you don't necessarily have to establish a full brick-and-mortar crisis stabilization unit everywhere," DelGrosso said.

    Many of the 17 existing centers already have acute treatment units that generally serve people who require a short-term stay in a secure environment, as opposed to a long-term stay in a psychiatric hospital.

    Many of these units offer walk-in services 24 hours a day for patients who are referred to them from emergency rooms or by police. But the range of services the units offer is limited and varies by location.

    "For people who aren't at the point where they need a bed, but just need to talk, there's a lot of opportunity," said Kelly Phillips-Henry, chief operating officer at AspenPointe in Colorado Springs. "Those services to that extent aren't the mission of the acute treatment unit now."

    In addition to 13 crisis stabilization units with comprehensive services, which would be located throughout the state, the new proposal also aims to improve other services offered to people experiencing a mental crisis, DelGrosso said.

    The plan would fund mobile outreach teams able to respond to urgent mental health calls within one hour in urban areas and within two hours in rural areas. It would also improve short-term respite and residential services and fund more transportation to centers.

    Often a patient in need of services offered at a crisis center is more than an hour's drive away. Under the new proposal, funds would allow centers to transport patients from remote areas to a walk-in crisis center, DelGrosso said.

    "If someone needs to be transported, right now we don't have the funding to do that, and very often that lands in the lap of police or the sheriff's department," DelGrosso said.

    The 13 centers makes more sense than five if the goal is to reach as many people as possible, said Rick Doucet, CEO of Community Reach Center in Adams County, who noted that center leaders generally support Hickenlooper's proposal.

    "Colorado is a big place, that would leave a lot of places uncovered," Doucet said. "We're building on what we already have to increase availability."

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