Bill would create emergency crisis centers

The state would change the way it responds to individuals experiencing mental health crisis under a bill heard Feb. 24 by the Health and Human Services Committee.

Columbus Sen. Paul Schumacher, introducer of LB998, said Nebraska needs to address a shortcoming in state law that places the burden on counties of evaluating Emergency Protective Custody (EPC) detainees pending a mental health board proceeding.

Schumacher said local law enforcement and county attorneys currently are tasked with determining whether an individual is mentally ill and dangerous and, if so, taking the person into EPC. Detainees then are often refused placement within the state’s behavioral health system, he said, due to lack of capacity or because the individual is deemed too dangerous or combative.

The result, he said, is that EPC detainees are charged with a criminal violation and jailed.

“What we are struggling with is a mental health system which is not terribly well organized and which does not do a uniformly good job across the state of addressing mental health issues—which, if left unaddressed, end up as prison overcrowding issues,” Schumacher said.

The bill would authorize creation of five emergency community crisis centers to be located across the state. Two would be established in the first year following the bill’s effective date, with an additional crisis center established each year for the next three years.

Crisis center locations would be determined by the director of the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and centers also would be authorized to provide services to individuals seeking mental health treatment through voluntary commitment.

In addition, the department would be required to establish a regional outreach center that maintains a toll-free hotline.

Elizabeth Lay, Platte County deputy county attorney, testified in support of the bill, saying the current system does not serve the state well.

Counties are obligated to deal with individuals who are mentally ill, she said, while also considering public safety. If mental illness is driving an individual’s criminal behavior, she said, proper treatment is essential as a long-term solution.

“We’re trying to ensure that the treatment is primary so that person can go back into society and live a productive life,” Lay said. “Prison doesn’t accomplish that.”

Elizabeth Hurst of the Nebraska Hospital Association also testified in support of the bill. Approximately 10 of the nearly 100 hospitals in Nebraska have specially designated mental health units, she said, which is insufficient to adequately address the state’s mental health needs.

The result, Hurst said, is that hospitals with contracts to provide mental health care to EPC detainees often refuse individuals because the facility lacks the specially trained staff required to provide proper treatment.

Sheri Dawson, DHHS director of the division of behavioral health, testified in a neutral capacity. The department has contracted for a comprehensive behavioral health needs assessment, she said, which will be completed by June 30. Failing to wait for the results of the study could result in establishment of crisis centers in areas of the state that would be duplicative and costly, she said.

“I believe LB998 is premature, as services outlined in this bill should be considered in light of [that study],” Dawson said.

No opposition testimony was offered and the committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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