- Associated Press - Sunday, January 31, 2016

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Jimmy Moss, an Idaho Falls resident suffering from a traumatic brain injury, was facing homelessness when his family brought him to the recently opened crisis center in eastern Idaho last year.

“I was really bitter,” Moss, 38, said. “I was fed up with life. I didn’t want to come in, but I was agitated. I didn’t know where it was coming from - from the medication or the brain injury.”

Within hours, Moss was connected with an Idaho Falls community center that houses people who are facing homelessness and struggling with mental illness and with a doctor to oversee his prescriptions and treat him.

Gov. C. L. “Butch” Otter is asking the Legislature for $1.7 million to build another center in southern Idaho. Proponents say the center would alleviate overburdened emergency rooms and crowded jails, while linking people with mental health issues to services and medical care.

If the measure passes, it would be the third center in the state. A second crisis center was built in Coeur d’Alene in 2015, despite a number of northern legislators, including Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, voting against the measure.

Some of those legislators may oppose this year’s measure as well.

“The central issue is can Idaho afford it?” Barbieri questioned. “My argument has always been that we are never attacking the root of the problem. We are always just adjusting our behavior (and) our approach in dealing with the end of the problem.”

Barbieri was ambiguous on whether he would support the proposal.

However, two health districts, in Twin Falls and in Boise, are vying for the third center with their legislators leading the charge. Last year, lawmakers approved funding a new crisis center in a bill that specifically placed it in northern Idaho. That’s because proposals submitted by Idaho Falls and Coeur d’Alene in 2014 were so similar, Department of Health and Welfare spokeswoman Niki Forbing-Orr said.

She said the Legislature could dictate the next location, this year, but it’s unlikely. Instead, a department committee would select a plan submitted by districts or different communities. The winner must have a plan to match state funding by 50 percent within two years of operation.

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, calls the Behavioral Health Community Crisis Center in eastern Idaho a success story.

“I think our history is pretty sad,” Bell said. “Mentally ill people have been put in jail; they’ve been chained to hospital beds. We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t really have a system.”

According to the Department of Health and Welfare, Idaho Falls saw 1,536 admissions in 2015. Of those, 259 were law enforcement referrals, meaning instead of delivering the client to the emergency room or jail, officers brought people to the center. The client has a bed to sleep in and a safe place to stay while they work out their crisis.

In total, the center served 2,348 clients in 2015 and saved approximately $730,000 in hospitalization and emergency room costs. Department of Health and Welfare estimates that an average stay at the center is around 15 hours and having the center, saved about 1,200 hours of law enforcement time last year.

The center saves officers time, but it is a “drop in the bucket” in the ongoing efforts to deal with mental health, Capt. Sam Hulse of Bonneville County Sheriff’s Department said.

On average, officers spend about 20 minutes on a crisis call, as opposed to the four hours it took them to check a person into the emergency room or book them into jail before.

Hulse would like to see mental health treated with the same importance as physical health.

“This isn’t about someone in a faraway place,” Hulse said. “It’s about us as a society. It’s about our neighbors and friends. It’s about a human problem. We need to reduce that stigma.”

Because Ada County makes up 27 percent of the state’s population, Boise’s Democratic Rep. Melissa Wintrow and other lawmakers are adamant that the center needs to land in Boise. Wintrow said over the summer, she visited Cooper Court, a former homeless camp in Boise, and was struck by the number of people who needed mental health services.

Barbieri said he received a “loud and clear” message from his constituents: People in crisis often land in jail.

“I just question the efficacy,” he said. “If we can just be sure that we are helping these people and it’s just not another place to dump them off in the system, it would be easier to support.”

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