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Crisis center legislation would help bring solutions to crisis intervention, sponsors say

Staff Writer | March 21, 2023 5:32 PM

OLYMPIA — A bill to create crisis relief centers licensed by the Washington Department of Health will help bring solutions to many issues surrounding people going through a crisis if it is passed, local legislators say.

“The mental health crisis is the number one issue we have in our country today,” said District 13 Rep. Tom Dent (R-Moses Lake). “We do not have the facilities it takes to handle it; we don’t have the treatment, we don’t have the workforce, we just don’t have it. And we’re trying to build it up, so this looks like a good idea.”

Senate Bill 5120, which has already passed the Senate and is working its way through the House, would create local places for those going through a crisis to admit themselves voluntarily and get more specialized care and long-term resources, if enacted.

“Our first responders don't necessarily have places to take them,” said Sen. Judy Warnick (R-Moses Lake), a sponsor of the bill.

She explained that first responders frequently deal with people in crisis, and the bill would give them a more appropriate place to take the person rather than the emergency room or jail if the person does not have a physical injury or just needs to be monitored in a safe environment.

“I think it's very important because our emergency rooms and hospitals are filled up with people that have a behavioral or mental health need, not a medical need,” Warnick said.

Moses Lake Police Chief Kevin Fuhr said he believes these centers are exactly what is needed, not only in Washington but in the Moses Lake area specifically.

He said currently the only options for people in crisis are to either take them to the hospital – either voluntarily or involuntarily – or book them into Grant County Jail if they have committed a felony. He said they also try to work with Renew, Grant County’s mental health agency, when possible but they are not always available.

“I’ve been advocating for something like this for a few years now,” said Fuhr.

Fuhr said that Idaho has facilities like the ones proposed in this legislation and during his time as a police chief in Idaho, they made a huge difference in not only having a place to take people but lifting the burden from the local emergency room.

Warnick also said these facilities would bring peace of mind to families to have a resource that is more equipped to handle the needs of their loved ones and is closer to home than most of the mental health facilities in Washington such as Eastern and Western state hospitals.

“Everyone is dealing with mental health and substance use issues,” Fuhr said. “It’s not in any one specific area. The problem with us is because Moses Lake is kind of isolated, we’re kind of by ourselves here in the middle of the state, we don’t really have resources that are close.”

Warnick said she has had family in similar situations, unable to get resources close to home for a loved one in crisis.

“I understand the need for options,” Warnick said.

Dent said he also has personal experience with lack of options for a loved one going through a crisis. He feels that not much has changed to deal with the issue, so it has only gotten worse over time.

“It’s a terrible crisis,” Dent said. “It’s a terrible thing. We need help. We’re not given it. In my opinion, it was the No. 1 crisis when I got here in 2015, and if anything, it's worse today than it was then. I’m just so frustrated with what’s going on in our system.”

Fuhr said his only concerns with the facilities would be funding them and staffing them.

“There is no downside to this at all,” he said. “We need funding and we need to be able to keep the funding going.”

The bill was pre-filed for introduction in December and referred to the Senate Health and Long-Term Care Committee on the first day of session. It quickly moved through committee and on to Ways and Means before the second substitute bill passed the Senate floor March 1, 47-0.

“I’m hoping that the House will look favorably on it too,” Warnick said.

In the House, the bill was referred to the Health Care and Wellness Committee and is scheduled for an executive session on March 22 at 1:30 p.m.

“We play politics with too many of our bills,” Dent said. “This is not about politics; it’s about people’s lives. It tears my heart out to see what’s happening in our country.”

Rebecca Pettingill may be reached at rpettingill@columbiabasinherald.com.