Mental health helped with new Kansas City Assessment and Triage Center

By Benita Jones, Municipal Court

Many times people suffering with mental-health issues or facing a substance-use crisis need help that doesn’t involve a trip to an emergency room or jail. Fortunately, such an alternative is available in Kansas City, Missouri. City and state officials have pooled resources with law enforcement and the healthcare community to create a public-private partnership that has produced a one-of-a-kind facility for this state.

The Kansas City Assessment and Triage Center (KC-ATC) provides rapid 24-hour access to triage, stabilization and follow-up services. The center opened Oct. 31, 2016, at the corner of 12th Street and Prospect Avenue and in its first 60 days received 328 referrals, serving 245 clients. The KC-ATC is operated by ReDiscover under a contract with the City. Referrals come from Kansas City police and area hospitals only. The Center does not take walk-ins and clients must remain at the center voluntarily.

“We’ve been extremely busy,” said Program Manager Stephanie Boyer. “I think the numbers definitely show that we are filling a gap and providing a service that wasn’t there before.” The success stories are plentiful. For example, Ms. TC, a 29-year-old mother with two children, is divorced, homeless and addicted to drugs. She was transferred from Truman Medical Center on Dec. 4, 2016. She was treated at the KC-ATC for opiate withdrawal and then admitted to the transition clinic for methadone treatment. The most recent report showed she had been sober for more than 18 days – longer than she has been in 16 years of addiction.

Before the center opened, the Missouri Hospital Association reported that from 2012 through 2014, area hospitals experienced more than 8,000 visits annually from patients with substance-use disorders, and 9,000 visits from those with serious mental illness. Some went to emergency rooms as many as 100 times. When it came to law enforcement, it was not unusual for officers to get calls about the same person multiple times in one night.

KCPD Sgt. Sean Hess said the emergency room is not an effective resource for officers and the triage center will help slow, if not close, this revolving door of police contact-hospitals-jail and back into the community to restart the cycle.

“It has exceeded my expectations so far,” Hess said. “The ease and accessibility for police officers cannot be overstated. Officers can expect to wait 30 minutes to several hours at an emergency room; at the KC-ATC they are back in service within 10 minutes. The treatment team members at the KC-ATC have done outstanding jobs on getting a very resistant population into treatment. Several hardcore homeless people police have had frequent contacts with have been engaged and housed.”

Breaking this cycle isn’t easy, but that’s precisely what the KC-ATC is set up to do. Shifting this paradigm certainly includes telling people where to go for follow-up services, but, equally important, it also involves accompanying them through the process. The center has 16 beds divided between two units – a sobering unit for substance users and a stabilization unit for those in mental health crisis. Clients can stay up to 23 hours. There is a nursing staff to make assessments and administer medication. Case managers directly hand off clients to the next agencies and programs that will provide them with longer-term services.

“This center is so important because it allows not only for the diversion of people in a behavioral crisis from hospital emergency rooms and jails and immediately stabilizes their crisis, but it also puts in place those critical follow-up services necessary — shelter, mental health and substance services and medications — to keep them out of crises and law violations often seen when their behavioral health condition is neglected,” said Municipal Court Judge Joseph H. Locascio.

In November 2013, Judge Locascio gathered a group of community stakeholders including police, fire, community mental health centers, substance-use treatment agencies, housing providers and community advocates to discuss ways to better serve individuals with mental illness and substance-use issues. They began working to establish the KC-ATC.

In 2015, Ascension Health sold St. Joseph and St. Mary’s Hospitals. Then Attorney General Chris Koster was tasked with determining how to utilize the $20 million profit which had to be reinvested in the Kansas City community. It was decided that the money would be allocated to support the KC-ATC operating budget at the rate of $2 million per year over the next 10 years. Area hospitals — HCA Midwest Health, Truman Medical Center, Saint Luke’s Health System, North Kansas City Hospital, Prime Health and Liberty Hospital — agreed to contribute $1 million a year for two years. The Missouri Department of Mental Health allowed the use of its building. The City paid for renovations and leases the space.

Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner was a chief proponents of the center and he says he was impressed with the seamless way all the agencies came together to support the project.

“It was a community-wide solution to a community-wide problem, and I am very excited for this opportunity,” Wagner said.