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McLean County Administrator Bill Wasson, right, talks with Jim Mulligan, treasurer for the county building committee during the recent ribbon-cutting marking completion of the new addition to the McLean County jail. Wasson on Friday said the county will open a new mental health triage center. 

BLOOMINGTON — McLean County will open a taxpayer-funded mental health triage center as part of an ongoing effort to address deficiencies in community mental health services.

County Administrator Bill Wasson told the county's Behavioral Health Coordinating Council Friday that $400,000 has been budgeted for the triage center, which is expected to open during next spring. The funds will come from sales tax proceeds set aside for mental health programming under an agreement between the city of Bloomington and the town of Normal.

The county will recruit professional staff and provide space in a county facility, said Wasson.

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 McLean County Center for Human Services to take advantage of 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, said Wasson.

The state awarded the money to another agency.

The new center 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 center "is an expansion of the mobile crisis team" operated by CHS, said Wasson. People will be referred to an appropriate local provider after an assessment.

For the county, jail inmates and people in specialty court programs have been identified as those needing immediate attention for ongoing psychiatric services, said Wasson.

The interim plan at the jail includes the use of telemedicine, a service that links a doctor with a patient through a video connection. The County Board is expected to approve a contract for the service next week.

"There is no question that there is an ever-increasing number of individuals we serve who have behavioral health issues," said Wasson.

Chestnut Health Systems will accept referrals from the county’s problem-solving courts. Defendants who participate in the mental health and drug court programs receive substance abuse and behavioral health treatment, including psychiatric care, through CHS.

The measures will give the county time to meet with CHS to gather more details of the funding shortages behind the decision to end referrals. A long-term solution will require collaboration among local providers to "work on a more global solution," said Wasson.

Tom Barr, executive director of CHS, attended the meeting but did not comment during the discussion. In an email to The Pantagraph after the meeting, Barr said "the Center for Human Services looks forward to our continued, collaborative work with the county and other community partners in serving people in crisis and ensuring they are safe and can access ongoing treatment as appropriate." 

In a recent statement, CHS attributed the reduction in psychiatric care to funding cuts from United Way of McLean County and the state. The center has used reserves to help cover costs of the program but "doing so is unsustainable," Barr said Friday, adding that referrals will continue to be accepted for all other programs.

Trisha Malott, supervisor of the behavioral health coordinating council, updated the council on a new supportive housing program the county will open early next year through an expansion of housing vouchers. The Frequent Users System Engagement program will provide housing opportunities for people with housing and mental health challenges that contribute to frequent visits to jail and emergency rooms.

Large private foundations provide initial financial backing for the program, which includes assistance with treatment and other basic needs. Savings realized from reduced contact with the criminal justice and health care systems are funneled back into the program, which will serve about 50 people over the next five years.

"We believe we can invest in things like mental health treatment and reduce our costs in the criminal justice system," said County Board Chairman John McIntyre.

The county's plans to extend mental health services started in 2015 with the adoption of a Mental Health Action Plan that targets housing, services for youth, crisis care, medication management and better collaboration among agencies as priorities. The challenges of housing a growing number of mentally ill inmates at the jail sparked the county's review.

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Contact Edith Brady-Lunny at (309) 820-3276. Follow her on Twitter: @pg_blunny

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McLean County Courts Reporter

McLean County courts reporter for The Pantagraph.

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