Mental health plan unveiled today would save Baton Rouge millions annually, BRAF says

The Baton Rouge Area Foundation unveiled a mental health strategy today that community leaders say would save the city-parish money and reduce the population of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, while also providing a much-needed service for the community in an area that has been lacking for years.

The 145-page report, titled “Initiative to Decriminalize Mental Illness: Recommendations for a Treatment Center and Continuum of Care,” was created by BRAF in conjunction with Health Management Associates.

It calls for a multipronged approach to attack inadequate mental health services in the city-parish. The plan includes creating a nonprofit organization to operate a diversion center where law enforcement could bring the mentally ill as opposed to emergency rooms or East Baton Rouge Parish Prison.  

The plan also calls for using Medicaid expansion dollars, among other funding streams, to help cover many of the center’s services. Families would be able to drop loved ones off at the center.

The crisis diversion center would mirror the San Antonio Restoration Center in Bexar County, Texas, and cost about $5.6 million annually to operate. However, the study notes the center is projected to save the city-parish $54.9 million over 10 years, including $3 million in the first year.

“By intervening early and appropriately with treatment, the center will save the city-parish money compared to the costs of the two alternatives available: the emergency room or prison,” BRAF says in a news release.

The foundation and HMA have identified the Baton Rouge Detox Center on South Foster Drive as one possible location for the diversion center. It has ample space and requires only interior renovation, which would carry a much lower price tag than the estimated $20 million to build a new facility.

Under BRAF’s plan, law enforcement would model its strategy for handling the mentally ill after the sequential intercept system. This model uses “interception points”—including initial arrests and preliminary court hearings—to steer mentally ill individuals toward treatment before they head deeper into the criminal justice system.

Karen Batia and Linda Follenweider, the authors of the report, outlined the broad strategy at a press conference at BRAF’s headquarters this afternoon.

Another facet of the plan includes: creating a mobile health unit that would help law enforcement when officers encounter someone who may have committed a crime, but needs mental health care.

The plan also allows for using different programs in the diversion center to help those with different needs, such as sobering beds, a medical detox program and a behavioral health respite program. Developing and expanding post-care services to help those with mental illness continue receiving the treatment they need is also key to the plan, which also includes helping those with mental illness find housing and employment, if needed.

The study, two years in the making, began with research into other cities and how they handle diverting the mentally ill from prisons and jails into clinics specially designed for their care. BRAF notes that jails have become the “nation’s de facto asylums since the mass closure of public psychiatric hospitals,” and East Baton Rouge Parish is no different.

Before its closure a few years ago, the Earl K. Long charity hospital housed the Mental Health Emergency Room Extension where law enforcement could bring mentally ill individuals.

“You can see this is not a want—this is not just something that we are trying to put on a wishlist,” Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie said. “This is a definite need for our community.”

East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said more than half of the inmates and suspects in the parish prison suffer from mental illness. The parish prison, he said, is inadequate to house the mentally ill, and lacks both a chemical dependency and mental health wing.

“And we’re in dire need of both,” the sheriff said.

—Ryan Broussard

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