Frederick County announced plans Tuesday to increase the number of crisis professionals who could join law enforcement when responding to calls related to addiction, mental health problems or similar issues.
County Executive Jan Gardner, along with Heather Kirby from Frederick Health Hospital, Dr. Barbara Brookmyer, the county's chief health officer, and Scott Rose from Way Station in the Sheppard Pratt Health System, said during a news conference Tuesday to announce the partnership that the coronavirus pandemic has shown the county has a high number of mental health service-related calls. Those demands would be better served through an expansion of a mobile crisis unit, which would assist local law enforcement and first responders 24 hours, seven days a week, Gardner said.
Gardner said she would introduce a supplemental budget for the County Council to approve in order to fund the expansion of mobile crisis intervention services.
"We are rethinking and reimagining how we should respond to certain crisis situations," Gardner said. "This partnership will allow us to serve people better using an integrated approach, so people get the care and support they need when they need it most."
Gardner said Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, the county's top law enforcement officer, is supportive of the idea and open to shifting some money around in his budget to help pay for the expansion. Jenkins confirmed in a phone interview Tuesday he is "very supportive" of the idea, and has identified about $130,000 in money he could move around to help start the expansion.
Gardner said after the briefing that the mobile crisis unit would cost just under $1 million to start, although final details still need to be worked out. Jenkins added the expansion should greatly assist his agency in dealing with mental health calls and similar needs.
Jenkins said his agency has worked with mobile crisis services over the years, but the main issue is those services don't meet the overall demands of the county.
"Over the years ... we've inherited all these other roles that we don’t necessarily need and want," Jenkins said of deputies handling mental health, addiction and similar calls.
"The other side of it is, how can people with mental health problems be better served?" he added. "If we can hand some people off as quickly as possible ... I think it’s a win-win for everybody."
Kirby, vice president of Integrated Health Delivery at Frederick Health Hospital, said the hospital system is currently in the process of applying for a grant from the state's Health Services Cost Review Commission (HSCRC), which is responsible for setting health care costs that "promote cost containment, access to care, equity, financial stability and hospital accountability," according to its website.
The HSCRC, when offering grants for mental health services like the aforementioned mobile crisis unit, looks for strong partnerships when deciding where to award money, Kirby said.
"They're really focused on hospitals working with the community," Kirby said, adding the grant, if approved, could give Frederick County $1.5 million a year over five years for the crisis unit and other needs. Roughly $600,000 of that annual money could be used toward the unit, she said.
Kirby said based on a preliminary "high-level review" of hospital data, there appears to be demand for more mobile mental health services. Kirby estimated possibly 55 to 60 percent of people who come into the hospital's emergency room could have been treated outside the hospital, whether for a mental health, addiction issue or something similar.
In a broader sense, health care in Maryland has also shifted from just conversations on how to treat people in a medical setting, like a hospital, to meeting them in their communities, she said.
"Over the last seven to nine years, we've really started to shift health care to say, the care we deliver in a hospital or a medical office setting, in some ways should be preserved for those folks that are perhaps the most sick, and need those intensive resources," Kirby said. "What we could do a much better job of is improving the health of the population that we serve."
Another key partner in expanding the mental health services is the Way Station, part of the Sheppard Pratt Health System. Rose, who is chief of rehabilitation and recovery services at Sheppard Pratt, is a member of that team.
Rose said the expansion there could either consist of clinicians responding directly to intervene in situations, either alone or with partner. Or, during the overnight hours, the clinician would respond with law enforcement.
Currently, the Way Station can offer mobile crisis response from 1-9 p.m. Monday through Friday for adults, Rose said. The new unit would be able to serve the entire county 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"Sometimes, law enforcement may just call for counsel [like], what do you think about this situation?" he said. "The other advantage of this and why it reduces the cost to law enforcement is there's often situations where law enforcement is responding, and there's no safety issue ... it's a mental health issue, and they can assure the scene is safe and move on to other situations."
Four licensed mental health professionals would work in pairs during two day shifts, and another would respond with law enforcement or first responders at night, due to fewer calls at that time of day, Rose said.
The Way Station has been doing mobile mental health crisis work for almost two decades, Rose said, but if it's expanded, the staff on the unit would grow from two or three employees to more than 10 employees.
"That gives you a sense of the enormity of this," Rose said. "The demand is probably indicative of the fact that other jurisdictions have gone nationally to 24/7 [units] ... law enforcement agencies indicate a need, and hospitals indicate a need for 24/7 ... more people will access it if they know it's available."