Oregon Considers a New Approach to People in Mental Crisis

This bill proposes to create safe places where people who’ve had mental health crises themselves—i.e., peers—would provide the services.

House Bill 2980 offers hope. (Chris Nesseth)

BILL OF THE WEEK: House Bill 2980

WHAT IT WOULD DO: HB 2980 would provide funding for three "peer respite centers"—short-term, homelike facilities for people experiencing mental health crises. Currently, people suffering such crises often end up in jail or emergency rooms, neither of which are equipped to handle them. This bill proposes instead to create safe places where people who've had mental health crises themselves—i.e., peers—would provide the services. There would be three centers: one in the Portland metro area, another in Southern Oregon, and a third in Eastern Oregon. The idea, says Kevin Fitts, executive director of the Oregon Mental Health Consumers Association, is to fill a big gap in current services: The state has few options short of locked psychiatric wards, which are extremely expensive and often not necessary.

WHO SUPPORTS IT: The bill has the bipartisan chief sponsorship of two well-placed lawmakers: state Rep. Cedric Hayden (R-Roseburg), a dentist and the House Republicans' leading voice on health care, and Rep. Rob Nosse (D-Portland), co-chair of the Joint Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Services.

WHO OPPOSES IT: There's no formal opposition. But as in every session, funding for mental health programs tends to get short shrift. The peer respite centers would each cost about $750,000 a year to operate, Fitts says. That's real money in a time of tight budgets—but research shows such centers are a far more effective and cheaper solution than putting patients in jail or hospitals.

WHO ELSE HAS DONE IT: At least 14 states have some form of peer-supported mental health services.

WHY IT MATTERS: Oregon perennially ranks among the worst states in the nation for providing mental health services. Dr. Jonathan Betlinski, head of public psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University, testified Feb. 16 that peer respite is more effective, humane and efficient than the current alternatives. Respite programs, Betlinski testified, "can expand the help available to Oregonians experiencing a mental health crisis, result in significant positive outcomes for participants, and save health care dollars."

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