Austin approves spending millions on improving mental health call response

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The City of Austin is making an effort to improve how its first responders handle mental health calls.

The fiscal year 2019-20 budget that Austin City Council passed Tuesday includes boosting funding for Austin-Travis County Emergency Management Services, Integral Care’s Expanded Mobile Crisis Outreach Team (EMCOT) and training for 911 dispatchers.

The aim is to get people the help they need faster.

“The quicker you get the right level of care to people in need, the better the results,” explained Dawn Handley, Integral Care’s Chief Operations Officer.

Increasing the number of community health paramedics

ATCEMS is receiving $790,000 to hire seven more employees for the agency’s Community Health Paramedics program.

“Some of our clients don’t really need an ambulance. They need a paramedic,” said Chief Ernesto Rodriguez. “They need somebody who needs to assess them, who knows how to talk to them, who knows how to find out about their medical history and knows how to activate the care they need.”

Rodriguez said EMS responds to mental health calls “many times a day…probably every hour.”

He said adding seven more specially trained paramedics is going to help address a specific need in the community. Right now, they have 11 community health paramedics.

“Our plan is to put community health medics in vehicles and add them to the system, and any time a mental health case comes up, whether it’s an Austing Police Department case or one of our own, we’ll notify them, and they’ll start moving in that direction quickly,” said Rodriguez.

He said delivering the right type of care in a timely manner is crucial.

“It’s very important to begin to understand that you’re seeing a mental health crisis, not seeing someone, for example, just being violent,” Rodriguez explained. “Somebody that’s experiencing a mental health crisis can have many different behaviors. We need to be flexible. We need to be on our toes. We need to recognize quickly what’s going on.”

Additional funding for Integral Care’s mobile response team

EMS will soon also employ a tool called Telehealth. That’s in partnership with Integral Care. Austin Police will also use the same tool.

Under the new budget, Handley said they’ll be able to hire two full-time and one part-time clinician who will be able to answer video calls from paramedics or crisis intervention officers.

“We don’t have lights and sirens, so it takes a little longer to get there,” she said. “So [with] this, there’s a first responder in the field who knows that they’re interacting with an individual that might have a mental health need. They can use this iPad and pull up a clinician right away and give access to that client, they can talk to the clinician.”

Integral Care operates a team made up of mental health professionals who help adults and children having a mental health crisis. They’re called the Mobile Crisis Outreach Team.

Handley said the new budget will also allow them to have four clinicians working at the 911 call center.

“When you call 911, they ask you what is your emergency. Is it fire? Is it EMS? Is it law enforcement? Now, we’ll be able to offer the option of is it a mental health call,” Handley said.

She added: “It’s just about meeting that person first, and not having to go through layers of people, which delays a response and getting the treatment started immediately.”

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