Shawnee Dispatch

Shawnee, Lenexa join Johnson County mental health corresponder program

March 31, 2016

Shawnee has partnered with Lenexa and Johnson County to bring a new Johnson County Mental Health co-responder program to the city.

Approved last month by both cities, the partnership allows a mental health professional to accompany police officers on calls that involve potential mental health situations. The goal is to provide individuals experiencing mental health issues quicker access to services and keep them out of jail or the emergency room.

“Our staff is excited to begin this progressive approach in providing those with mental illness the services they need and deserve,” said Rob Moser, Shawnee Chief of Police. “The collaboration between our three entities has been an impressive process and we look forward to providing our communities with the appropriate services to help prevent over-utilization of jails and emergency rooms when responding on these types of calls.”

The Shawnee City Council unanimously approved the program estimated to cost less than $50,000 per year for the Shawnee portion of the co-responder program. That includes personnel costs, equipment, vehicle maintenance and other related costs. Those costs will be split equally between Shawnee and Lenexa. Payments will be made quarterly to Johnson County Mental Health Center, or JCMH.

The county facility will hire, employ and supervise one Qualified Mental Health Professional, the co-responder, as part of the project. As law enforcement officers respond to the scene of a call and it is determined that assistance of the co-responder is needed, the responding officer will work jointly with the co-responder, either directly or through dispatch.

The City of Olathe was the first city to partner with JCMH for a co-responder in 2010. The co-responder program was then expanded to include Overland Park in 2013. The results in both cities have shown the program to be successful in reducing incarceration of persons in crisis and increasing referrals for mental health assistance.

In 2015, dispatchers called for a co-responder to assist on 1,184 calls in Olathe and Overland Park combined. Out of those calls, law enforcement placed the offending individual in jail just 23 times, 1.9 percent of the time. Officers also only placed the individual in an emergency room 49 times, or just 4.1 percent.

“The co-responder program increases the likelihood that someone suffering from mental illness will receive necessary services quickly, rather than ending up in jail or the emergency room where the same level of services is not available,” said Rob MacDougall, a mental health clinician at JCMH.

Not only are the services not available, it is less expensive to divert those individuals to mental health services.

According to the county, JCMH treated almost 9,200 clients. About 2,200 of those people, or 25 percent, were youths ages 17 or younger. Johnson County Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Ed Eilert addressed the critical role the facility plays in handling the mental health concerns of the county in his 2016 State of the County Address.

“More clients were served last year with fewer mental health staff than a decade ago,” Eilert said. “When a person suffering mental illness is in our jail, taxpayers are required to provide all medical services needed for that person.”

A recent study by the county showed 17 percent of the inmates at the county jail received some kind of psycotropic drug last year. That’s more than 100 prisoners, on average, per day.

Eilert and some local Shawnee elected officials have recognized the importance of this program and the need for additional funding from the state. However, they say the state is passing laws that not only avoid contributing to these programs, but reduced the ability of cities and the county to fund the programs on their own by passing a tax lid law.

Since 2008, the state General Fund allocated to serve the uninsured and underinsured has decreased by about 30 percent, according to Eilert. That’s concerning, he said, when several facilities in the area face uncertain futures because of a lack of funding.

Osawatomie State Hospital and Rainbow Services Inc., or RSI, both face uncertain futures. RSI served 2,057 people in 2015, and is a state-funded collaboration between the Heartland Regional Alcohol and Drug Assessment Center, Wyandotte Center and JCMH.

Shawnee City Council member Jeff Vaught said the threat of a tax lid by the state Legislature as soon as 2017 would seriously hamper local governments' abilities to help fund these mental health programs. Under the tax lid law, city and county government would have to hold a public election if they want to raise spending by more than the Consumer Price Index.

“This should heighten some awareness as to why the tax lid is a bad deal,” Vaught said.

Council members Eric Jenkins and Brandon Kenig agree the state and local governments need to take this issue seriously.

“I think we all know that in our society, people with mental health issues often don’t get the resources they need before it’s too late,” Kenig said. “I think this (program) really helps our officers to be able to address these issues, identify those who are suffering and be able to respond to calls on those matters.”

Jenkins said the national issue can be dramatically improved in Johnson County, and he was happy to see the recent steps taken by local government.

“That isn’t where these folks belong, they don’t belong in jail and they don’t belong in our criminal justice system,” Jenkins said. “We need that system to do its function and not take care of a bunch of people that require specialized care.”

The latest corresponder program in Shawnee and Lenexa is just the latest step the county has taken to address mental health concerns.

In 2009, Johnson County embarked on a study of the Sequential Intercept Model as a way to deal with criminalization of individuals with mental illness. The model was developed by the National Gains Center, through a grant funded by the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City.

Last year, the county became one of four national launch sites to kick off the Stepping Up Initiative aimed at reducing the incarceration of people with mental illness.

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