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County assessment center unveiled

Jessica Peckover explains a proposal for a county access center to deal with people experiencing a behavioral health crisis to members of the Solon City Council April 19. Peckover is the Johnson County jail alternatives coordinator. (photo by Doug Lindner)

SOLON– A county initiative to build a behavioral assessment center received positive responses from members of the Solon City Council.
“I can guarantee you the money that is saved by having these types of services for people that are mentally ill, versus throwing them into a jail or a prison system, is substantial,” council member Shawn Mercer said after a presentation during an April 19 meeting.
A Johnson County steering committee is looking into the possibility of creating and staffing a Behavioral Health Access Center with dedicated beds for detoxification and observation. The center would serve as alternate emergency room of sorts for people suffering from a mental health crisis.
The steering committee has developed projected building costs for a facility, as well as estimated annual expenses.
There to explain it were committee members Jessica Peckover, the Johnson County jail alternatives coordinator, and Dr. Rick Dobyns, University of Iowa President’s Office.
Due to the number of items on the council’s agenda, Peckover and Dobyns provided a condensed version of their presentation.
The current effort has roots in the county’s implementation of Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) approximately two years ago.
Often a law enforcement officer’s only options when dealing with a person experiencing a mental health crisis are to take them to jail for creating a disturbance (or other criminal activity) or to a hospital emergency department for evaluation. CIT trains officers to recognize a mental health crisis and to seek more appropriate resources in the community, including counselors and substance abuse agencies.
“We know ERs and jails are not the best places for people in behavioral health crisis,” Peckover said. “But that’s what we’ve trained communities and people to do.”
Since May of 2015, numerous law enforcement officers and other local government officials have traveled to San Antonio, Texas, to receive CIT education or to observe an existing network of crisis services.
In 2016, Peckover said, participants in the trips gathered to discuss the types of services which would translate well to Johnson County, and that became the basis for the steering committee’s proposal.
The key elements of the proposed access center would be:
• A 10-bed sobering unit with an average length of stay of four to six hours;
• A 10-bed detoxification unit;
• A 10-bed short-term (less than a day) and five-bed interim (less than a week) crisis observation unit;
• A low-barrier shelter operating during winter;
• Twenty-four hour medical assessment and first aid.
“And then, of course, there’s a lot of care coordination that’s wrapped around all of that,” Peckover told council members.
The committee is seeking a campus-style facility that would be law enforcement-friendly, allowing officers to be in-and-out in 15 minutes.
“Communities spend a lot of time on law enforcement overtime when they sit in the ER for four-to-six hours waiting for somebody in crisis to be seen,” she said. “The model here is that law enforcement drops off, they’re out the door, we’ll figure it out here. Law enforcement can go back to police work, and we’ll take care of the behavioral health crisis.”
A separate committee is looking at possible locations, Peckover said, with commitments from Johnson County, Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty for construction capital.
According to Dobyns, the estimated cost for the 15,000-16,000 square-foot facility would be $6.27 million.
Johnson County and Iowa City are being asked to provide $2.5 million each, he said, while North Liberty and Coralville’s recommended capital contribution would be $500,000 each, with the remaining Johnson County communities to hopefully pick up the balance at a cost of $24 per person.
“So for the city of Solon, this is our recommended request,” Dobyns said. “If you should decide as a council to contribute to the access center, it would be $50,000.”
The committee’s recommendation is to spread the contributions out over two fiscal years, he added.
The funding formula was based on both population and calls for medical service, he noted, because the center will serve both law enforcement and health needs.
Once the center is built, there would be no requests for operational funding from communities, he said.
Peckover said annual operating expenses were estimated at $2.5 million. It’s anticipated most of the costs would be offset by insurance and government reimbursement through Medicaid.
“From a humanist point of view, this certainly is the best way to take care of people that law enforcement has to detain,” Dobyns said. “Certainly they don’t all need to go to the emergency room, and to send them to Johnson County Jail and sort of become criminalized also is not the appropriate thing to do.”
The project also makes good financial sense, he added.
While no projections are available locally, Peckover said, the data that is available from existing programs shows a reduction in officer overtime, lower jail costs and significant savings to hospitals.