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BLOOMINGTON — McLean County officials hope distant psychiatrists can help improve local mental health.

Telepsychiatrists will evaluate patients and refer them to local agencies for treatment under an agreement approved Tuesday by McLean County Board.

"(The psychiatrists locally) aren't there, and this is a way we can cover more ground," said board Chair John McIntyre. "It's going to serve anybody that has been referred to, or comes in for, behavioral psychiatric treatment through our court systems."

Bill Caisley voted against the agreement after questioning whether telepsychiatry — services delivered via a video call like Skype rather than in person — is actually effective.

Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal, The Center for Youth and Family Solutions in Bloomington and the McLean County Jail use telepsychiatry services now, said board member Susan Schafer.

"In-person psychiatric services is probably more ideal, but ... I do think that some is better than none," said board member Carlo Robustelli.

"The thing that I hope is understood in the community is that we as a board have tried to increase services in the community, not (replace) them. We cannot do this alone," he continued. "This is to try to plug a short-term hole, but we absolutely need our nonprofit partners, our hospital partners and others who are providing these critical services for us to improve."

The county will pay an undetermined amount for the service, to be billed at up to $210 per hour through Genoa Healthcare, a suburban Seattle-based company that employs more than 250 telepsychiatrists. It's expected to be housed at 200 W. Front St., where county government has several offices.

The agreement is for one year, but allows either side to get out with 60 days notice and includes three additional years of renewals if neither side opts out. McIntyre said the county will be watching closely on how well the service does to decide whether to extend the contract.

"I ... request that we identify a body, whether that's internal or external, that can begin to develop some type of measurement where we can determine what kind of progress we're making (in mental health)," said board member Laurie Wollrab. "Then (we'll) be able to determine from there what it is we need to do and how we need to do it."

Officials are grappling with the Center for Human Services — McLean County's mental health agency serving people with the greatest needs and fewest resources — no longer accepting new clients for its psychiatric program. That's due to declining support from the state and United Way of McLean County.

The county also plans to open a mental health triage center next spring. That will be available for law enforcement officers who interact with people who may require a mental health assessment. In addition to the professional staff, the center will have peer support staff available to talk with clients.

The county's move to become a direct provider of mental health services for people who need immediate help follows an unsuccessful effort by the CHS to secure a $200,000 state grant for triage services. The center was unable to recruit the necessary staff within the time frame required by the grant.

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Contact Derek Beigh at (309) 820-3234. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_beigh

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