Laura Seitz, KSL

Utah bill seeking $21 million to build new mental health ‘crisis centers’ advances

By Katie McKellar, KSL | Posted - Feb. 14, 2020 at 3:22 p.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — Charles Ellis, who said he has been diagnosed as bipolar, said when he was having a crisis several months ago, a concerned person called law enforcement for help.

But what happened next wasn’t exactly helpful — and escalated the situation rather than diffused it.

“The next thing I knew, about 10 police cars came up and lit my car up like daylight,” Ellis told lawmakers on a House committee Thursday.

Ellis said he was held at gunpoint, ordered out of his car, ordered to back up 30 feet across the parking lot, and told if he didn’t comply he would be shot with a stun gun. He was then handcuffed, searched and “pink sheeted” — or forced into an ambulance to be taken to a local health care facility.

“So I was taken in, put into a room, nothing more than a padded cell with a couple pieces of furniture bolted to the floor,” he said. “It took health care workers less than 30 minutes to determine I wasn’t a danger to myself.”

But it still took three more hours for him to be discharged. And since then, he and his insurance were billed for roughly $4,500.

“It was totally unnecessary,” Ellis said. “If someone had come out and talked to me, I know it would have been determined I wasn’t in crisis and danger to myself.”

While telling his story, Ellis sat next to his neighbor, Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, who is sponsoring HB32, which would change the way people like Ellis could get emergency response for mental health crises. Backers say it has the potential to revolutionize Utah’s emergency response to mental illness and crisis.

That bill — if its substantial fiscal note of over $21 million is approved — could help build several new crisis centers up and down the Wasatch Front. Those 24-hour facilities would be where people experiencing mental health episodes in need of emergency care could go, rather than being sent to hospital emergency rooms or jail cells.

The same bill would also expand “mobile outreach teams,” or what Eliason called “mental health ambulances,” into rural parts of Utah. The teams could meet people experiencing crisis in their homes or on the streets for treatment, rather than relying on police for emergency response.

That bill cleared its first legislative hurdle Thursday when it gained unanimous approval from the House Health and Human Services Committee, with lawmakers praising Eliason for carrying forward an effort that could be transformational for both Utah’s mental health and criminal justice systems.

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Though the bill carries a substantial fiscal note — including $9.7 million in ongoing money and $11.5 million in one-time money for those crisis centers — amid what legislators have warned will be a tough budget year, there’s momentum building on Capitol Hill as political heavyweights like House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, have expressed early interest in it.

Plus, Eliason told lawmakers Thursday, there have been “significant commitments for support” from the private sector to help fund the effort.

A big-name donor that is already making significant investments in Utah mental health is the Huntsman family. In November, the Huntsman Foundation pledged a “historic” $150 million gift to the University of Utah to establish the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, hoping it would spark a statewide movement in the battle against mental illness, end stigmas and open doors to finding effective treatments.

David Huntsman, president of the Huntsman Foundation, pointed to that $150 million donation in an earlier Heath and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee meeting Wednesday morning, telling lawmakers “we’re prepared to commit more than that if need be over time.”

“But our gift is not a replacement for public funding,” Huntsman added. “We want to fully leverage our gift together with public funding and all other sources of funding to the maximum benefit of this state.”

Eliason said he’s “acutely aware” of state leaders’ budget constraints this year following the collapse of a tax reform package, but he urged lawmakers to support the bill, saying the program is “scalable” depending on final funding.

“At the end of the day, we’ll have to sort things out in the budget and what we can fund, but perfect is the enemy of good,” he said.

The bill, unanimously approved, now heads to the House for consideration.

It’s paired with HB35, a bill to fund 30 more mental health treatment beds at the Utah State Hospital, which sailed through the House earlier this week.

Katie McKellar

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