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The McLean County Museum of History can be seen through framework for the new skybridge as workers for River City Construction climb a set of stairs to work on the new expansion of the McLean County Jail. 

BLOOMINGTON — Housing opportunities for mentally ill people will improve under a $3 million initiative unveiled Friday by the McLean County Behavioral Health Coordinating Council to boost the number of housing units and provide more services.

The four-year pilot program will start with about 10 "super utilizers" — people who may be homeless and frequent emergency rooms and the county jail. By the third year, the program will grow to about 30 people, county Administrator Bill Wasson told the committee made up of local service providers, elected officials and community leaders.

The housing proposal is part of the County Board's efforts to address unmet mental needs outlined in its 2015 Mental Health Action Plan. 

A mix of funding sources will cover the estimated $3 million needed to implement the plan. A portion of sales tax funds collected from Bloomington and Normal for mental health services will pay half the cost, with the remainder coming from Medicaid and the Pay for Success Program through the Corporation for Supportive Housing.

The county has been working with the Chicago-based housing group to develop affordable and supportive housing. 

Pay for Success partners with public and private investors to raise money needed to start supportive housing programs. Over time, the savings from keeping people out of hospitals and jails offset the cost of the housing initiative, according to the Pay for Success model. After five years, the savings are expected to total about $552,000, which would be reinvested in housing and services, according to information shared with the committee.

A snapshot of the life of a "super utilizer," based on data collected by the county, shows a person spending 91 days in an emergency shelter and about 24 days in jail a year.

The cost of jail stays, combined with hospital and emergency room care, is about $60,000 per person. With assistance, that cost could be reduced to about $36,000 as people's lives become more stable, according to county estimates. 

A reduction in police involvement with mentally ill people represents a sizable savings, said Wasson. "Illinois has the highest law enforcement cost in the country on an hourly basis," said Wasson.

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The county is in the process of identifying the "super utilizers" who may benefit from housing that will come with more intense case management services than are currently available through local providers, said County Board Chairman John McIntyre. 

"This is going to require buy-in from a lot of people," McIntyre told the council. The groundwork for the pilot program will be completed by the end of the year.

In another matter related to mental health reform, Wasson said discussions between the county and the state Department of Human Services could result in a new treatment model for inmates deemed mentally unfit to stand trial.

McLean County and five other counties that rank highest among the mental health referrals to the state outside Cook County have been asked to provide data on how the county handles the mental fitness issue.  

If the county's new mental health unit under construction as part of an addition to the jail provided services to restore mental fitness, inmates would avoid a transfer to a state mental health facility. 

"Treatment on-site would expedite things," said Wasson, referring to the 35- to 45-day delay that is common for inmates who need treatment. Such a move would be a model among Illinois jails that struggle to manage severely mentally ill inmates until the state has available beds.

In 2017, an average of 75 people were on the unfit-for-trial waiting list, according to DHS. Once admitted, individuals stay between three and four months before returning to jail. In misdemeanor cases, the person is often released because the hospital stay covered any potential jail sentence for the offense.

The state plans to work with several of the highest referral counties to develop alternatives to state hospital stays.

Wasson also reported that a new coordinator has been selected to manage the county's mental health work. The person, who has not been named because she is transitioning from her current position, is expected to start in mid-April.

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Follow Edith Brady-Lunny on Twitter: @pg_blunny

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