Bill on crisis centers draws many concerns

A House panel approves a plan for three locations, but sustainability questions remain.

(IDAHO FALLS) POST REGISTERMarch 6, 2014 

If Idaho establishes the behavioral health crisis centers, how will money be allocated? How would future centers be established and maintained? Who would be in charge of the centers? Would communities support them?

Despite those questions, the House Health and Welfare Committee voted 10-1 to pass legislation to establish policies for the centers. Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, was the lone dissenter.

The centers in Boise, Idaho Falls and Coeur d'Alene would provide a place to go, other than jail or a hospital emergency room, for people in the throes of a mental health crisis. Center staff members would connect people with mental illnesses to counseling and other community services.

Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, went straight to the heart of the committee's concerns.

"The bill is a skeleton," she said.

The legislation, already approved by the Senate, will move to the House floor. If endorsed there, it just needs the signature of Gov. Butch Otter to become law.

Otter endorsed the centers in his January State of the State address.

Along with the policy legislation, the state Department of Health and Welfare outlined a 2015 budget request that includes more than $5.1 million in general funds for the first year of the crisis centers. The request is broken into $600,000 for one-time startup costs that can be used to secure and renovate buildings to house the centers, as well as operating costs of $4.56 million.

The governor recommended those requests in his executive budget. The funding for the centers first would be approved by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee and later the full Legislature.

Rep. Paul Romrell, R-St. Anthony, said he recognizes that the need for mental health centers is real, but he was disappointed with the Department of Health and Welfare's lack of specifics about how the facilities would function.

"I strongly support the concept," Romrell said. "We have to do something to stop the flow of these people into our jails and emergency rooms … but I want to see more of what you've said here today in the actual legislation."

Health and Welfare Director Dick Armstrong said communities need flexibility to establish facilities that meet the unique challenges each city will face. The more detailed the statute's language, the more rigid it becomes, he said.

Committee Chairman Fred Wood, R-Burley, said he understands the hesitancy of committee members to support the bill with so many unknowns. But the centers are a good starting point, he said.

"To some extent, it's a leap of faith," he said.

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