- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - State budget writers found a way Wednesday to finance two crisis centers in southern Idaho to serve as a safety net to treat at-risk mentally ill people whose symptoms often land them in hospitals or jail.

The Joint Finance Appropriations Committee voted 16-2 to divert nearly $1.5 million for crisis centers in Boise and Twin Falls. That money will go toward covering the centers’ operations. Meanwhile, the startup funding - which will pay for opening and building the centers - will come from the $715,000 left over from the crisis center that opened in northern Idaho late last year.

“I’m an unabashed champion of what these centers do,” said Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, who pitched the complicated proposal.

While acquiring state dollars is arguably the most critical part to opening a crisis center, regional officials still must submit applications to the Department of Health and Welfare on finding other funding sources after several years of operation.

Since 2014, lawmakers have approved funding two centers: Idaho Falls and Coeur d’Alene. The goal is to eventually open seven.

Republican Sens. Steve Bair of Blackfoot and Sheryl Nuxoll of Cottonwood cast the only opposing votes after unsuccessfully attempting to persuade the panel to fund just one center.

“I thought part of the idea was to help locals try to get involved in this, and I think we’re pushing the issue,” Nuxoll said.

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter has repeatedly argued that such centers are a cheaper, more effective way of getting people the help they need. However, the Republican governor only requested funding one center during his annual State of the State address to lawmakers at the beginning of the session.

According to the Department of Health and Welfare, the Idaho Falls center 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 working out the 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.

However, while the centers are considered a success inside the Statehouse, several mental health advocates and lawmakers have pointed out that ideally Idaho would expand eligibility for Medicaid so more low-income people could have access to a broader range of mental health services. The Republican-dominated Legislature has refused to consider Medicaid expansion so far, making the crisis centers Idaho’s answer to providing immediate help to those in need.

Wednesday’s proposal must still pass through the House and Senate chambers, but bills are rarely changed once leaving the powerful budget committee.

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