Citing mental health crisis, Sarpy County Board approves $1 million land purchase for center

Citing mental health crisis, Sarpy County Board approves $1 million land purchase for center
World-Herald News Service

Citing an “unmet mental health crisis” in Sarpy County, the County Board on Tuesday approved a purchasing agreement for a $1 million plot of land for a future mental health crisis center.

The center is expected to serve as a short-term emergency provider where people voluntarily go to receive mental health and substance abuse assessments. It will provide law enforcement officers with a dedicated facility to bring people who don’t belong in jail or a traditional hospital.

The $1.05 million, 6.6-acre plot is on the southeast corner of 25th Street and Highway 370, just east of Nebraska Medicine-Bellevue. The county expects to use cash on hand to pay for the land, though the payment isn’t finalized; board members have four months until the money is owed.

Tuesday’s move could signal a step forward in the county’s plan to build a new jail. The current jail, built in 1989, is overcrowded and lacks mental health and behavioral facilities.

County leaders say the jail, along with area emergency rooms, have been burdened by the absence of a dedicated mental health facility.

“The de facto mental health centers are now your jails, correctional centers and your emergency rooms in Nebraska, and that’s just not acceptable,” board member Don Kelly told The World-Herald. “These people that are having psychiatric crises, they need help — they don’t need to be stuck in a jail or an emergency room.”

In the last half of 2018, the county spent $1.4 million to house inmates with mental illness, according to data provided by the county.

A study evaluating potential locations for a new jail is underway. A decision is expected within the next two months.

Designs for the crisis center are still in early stages, and other specifics, including the community and government partners who may operate the facility, have not been determined, said Megan Stubenhofer-Barrett, the county spokeswoman.

A preliminary report suggests a 22,000- to 25,000-square-foot facility that would be available for use by all Sarpy County law enforcement agencies, as well as Cass, Dodge, Douglas and Washington Counties.

Dan Hoins, the county administrator, said during Tuesday’s meeting that he anticipates that the center will be a public-private partnership.

Early estimates say the facility itself could cost between $10 million and $13 million, with projected yearly operating costs between $2 million and $2.5 million.

A team of people — including Sarpy County government and law enforcement officials and mental health experts from the state’s Region 6 Behavioral Healthcare — had considered various options, including adding mental health services to the existing jail, combining such services with a potential new jail or developing a stand-alone facility.

The board voted 5-0 in favor of the purchasing agreement.

Douglas County pilot program aims to increase mental health care for youths in detention

Youths in Douglas County detention would more quickly undergo psychiatric assessments and receive more ongoing mental health care under a pilot program that’s about to launch.

The Douglas County Board voted Tuesday to allocate $31,000 for the Behavioral Health Screening and Assessment Pilot Program at the Douglas County Youth Center. The vote was unanimous.

The county is partnering with the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Creighton University and Charles Drew Health Center on the effort. Two doctors — one a child psychiatrist, the other a specialist in addiction and mental health — will work at the county’s juvenile detention center for a half-day each week. Additional people will help connect youths and their families, if needed, to ongoing care in the community after the youths are released from detention.

Brad Alexander, superintendent of the juvenile justice center, said it could shorten the amount of time that youths spend in detention and reduce the likelihood that they will be arrested and detained again. It could do that, he said, by speeding up the process of their receiving an evaluation and undergoing subsequent court hearings for placement, and by providing more mental health care after their release.

Currently, the youth center has a psychologist and licensed mental health practitioners on-site, but no psychiatrist. Often youths have to wait a long time to see a psychiatrist because of a shortage of doctors in that field.

Dr. Howard Liu, chair of the UNMC psychiatry department, said having the doctors at the youth center should lead to treatment beginning sooner for mental illness and substance abuse. And the navigators and partnerships will create “a warm handoff” to ongoing care at the community, including at Charles Drew.

“It’s really that coordination of care,” Liu said.

Kenny McMorris, CEO of Charles Drew, noted that the health center, based in north Omaha, also provides primary care and can “treat the whole family.”

The pilot program will run for six months. Board Chairman Chris Rodgers said private and state funding also will support it. The board voted unanimously to contribute county money to it. Board member Mike Boyle called the vote “the most important thing” the board would do in its meeting Tuesday.

“The children who come to us and are in the youth center have very significant problems,” Boyle said.