Tuesday, August 18, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

Integral Care set to address most mental health emergency calls without involving APD

Last week, City Council approved an additional $1.3 million for the Integral Care-EMCOT program next fiscal year, increasing the budget for the Expanded Mobile Crisis Outreach Team by about 75 percent. With those extra dollars, Integral Care, the mental health authority for Travis County, plans to hire enough trained professionals to answer and respond to all mental health-related 911 calls that do not present an imminent threat to public safety.

“With the funding we just voted on, we’re to the point where we think we can answer all of the diversion calls through the 911 call center,” Council Member Ann Kitchen said during Council’s Public Safety Committee meeting Monday afternoon.

This fiscal year, Integral Care used city funds to put a mental health clinician on the 911 call center floor for the first time, with the job of connecting individuals with the most appropriate resource available. Over this year, Dawn Handley, chief operations officer of Integral Care, said clinicians have been able to address emergencies without involving law enforcement in 85.4 percent of the calls dispatched to a mental health professional.

Next year, with $3.15 million for the diversion program, Handley said Integral Care will be able to provide 24/7 services to the call center for calls transferred over from the Austin Police Department or Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services Department. In most of those cases, Integral Care plans to connect individuals experiencing a mental health crisis with available facilities and resources without recourse to law enforcement.

At the current level of need, Handley said the EMCOT program needs a budget of $6.2 million to have enough backup field clinicians to respond to multiple mental health calls at one time. With the $3.15 million, Handley said it’s possible Integral Care won’t be able to respond to some calls from police or paramedics.

Even with the larger budget, the Austin Police Department will still be involved in many mental health cases, including when a crime has been committed, a weapon is present, someone is in need of medical assistance due to use of drugs or alcohol, someone is at risk of hurting themselves or someone else, or someone’s life or property are under threat.

“The vast majority of calls we are excluding from transfer are those imminent risk calls where someone is hurting themselves or hurting someone else, and those we cannot transfer to a crisis counselor,” APD Lt. Kenneth Murphy said.

Without legislative changes at the state level, police will also remain necessary for cases where an individual is at risk of harming themselves or others and requires involuntary psychiatric commitment. Unlike some states, Texas does not allow licensed mental health professionals or social workers to handle involuntary commitment cases.

The city is also considering what can be done to address the root causes of mental health crises that lead to 911 calls. For example, 40 percent of individuals experiencing a mental health crisis are in need of housing services. By addressing those root issues while expanding diversion programs, Handley said research has found significant opportunities for savings in health care, law enforcement and jail time.

“It costs much less to have an individual connected to a community-based service than it does in a more restrictive service, or in jail,” Handley said.

Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde, deputy city manager, said the city was initiating a deep dive into mental health response services beginning Monday evening with the first of three weekly meetings with a city-community task force. At the end of three weeks, the task force plans to have a set of priorities and rough timeline for plans related to 911 emergency dispatch among other services.

“We have asked our officers to do too many jobs,” Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said. “We have asked them to do things that have burdened the department in a way that is unsustainable and we’re not going to do that anymore.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council Public Safety Committee: A City Council committee that reviews safety issues, including code enforcement, disaster preparedness and criminal justice.

Austin Police Department: the law enforcement entity for the City of Austin.

Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services: This organization provides emergency services to the region.

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