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Bill To Expand Alternative Mental Health Response System Advances In Utah Legislature

Photo of Steve Eliason
Cory Dinter
Utah Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, introduced a bill Wednesday to expand an alternative mental health response system.

When Ginger Phillips was experiencing severe symptoms of her schizoaffective disorder, she used to end up in the emergency room a lot.

“When I’ve been tackled to the ground, I am handcuffed to the gurney,” Phillips said. “That makes it worse.

That’s the kind of situation that a bill introduced Wednesday by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, is trying to prevent. It would expand an alternative mental health response system that Phillips often uses now. The system routes people to mental health hotlines, mobile outreach teams, and mental health crisis centers separate from emergency rooms. The Health and Human Services Interim Committee voted unanimously to take up the bill.

“Emergency rooms are designed to put stitches in, set broken bones, reverse overdoses, things that can be done in relatively short order,” Eliason said during Wednesday’s committee meeting. “The outcome of behavior health issues is much more complex and difficult to treat in an emergency situation.”

Specifically, the bill would fund: 

  • three more mobile outreach teams in counties with less than 125,000 residents
  • one or more behavioral health receiving centers as part of a two-year pilot program
  • a “warm line” for people not in crisis to call and talk to trained peer counselors and therapists

Utah already has a mental health crisis line, but an April audit by the state found that from 2016 to 2018 the service ran at a roughly $1 million deficit, which is only expected to increase. 

The state had the fifth highest suicide rate in the country in 2017. An average of 627 Utahns die from suicide every year, according to the Utah Department of Health.

Eliason said the expanded system will save money in the long run, because these services are much less costly than hospital visits and can be covered by expanded Medicaid and private insurance. But, for now it would cost the state more than $5.7 million.

Ginger Phillips, who also trains certified peer support specialists for the state, said she supports the expansion. But, she’s concerned that if receiving centers are placed near law enforcement offices, homeless people would be deterred from using them. 

It’s considerations like that that show why people with mental health issues should be involved in the discussions around Eliason’s bill, Phillips said. 

“We want to be involved,” she said. “We know. We get it.”

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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