When Kansas City police pick up people who appear to be suffering mental health problems, they have two choices — take them to an emergency room or jail.
Neither option is ideal. And that’s why an agreement creating a mental health assessment and triage center at 12th Street and Prospect Avenue was heralded Wednesday by city, county and state officials.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster announced the center as the result of negotiations with Ascension Health, the hospital company that earlier this year completed its sale of two Kansas City area hospitals.
As part of the sale, St. Louis-based Ascension agreed in February to set aside $20 million to be used for charity care. In negotiations since then, the decision was made to channel $2 million a year over 10 years to provide partial funding for a new mental health assessment facility at 2600 E. 12th St.
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The estimated operating budget for the new center will be $3 million a year. Officials said Kansas City area hospitals and charitable foundations will be asked to help make up the difference.
“It’s going to help us do something about the revolving door in our jails and emergency rooms,” said Scott Wagner, a Kansas City Council member who has focused on homelessness and mental health issues. “We want to provide real services to those who come through and give them the long-term help they need. The city’s mental health ward shouldn’t be the jail.”
Joseph Locascio, who as a Kansas City Municipal Court judge deals with thousands of cases involving people with substance abuse or behavioral problems, said the triage center will be a game changer for Kansas City. He said millions of taxpayer dollars are wasted each year by cycling repeat offenders through the jail and emergency room systems.
The city “will be in the forefront of handling behavioral health crises,” Locascio said. “It will help break the cycle of the emergency response system of hospitals and jails.”
The $20 million allocation from Ascension is akin to the amount of funds contained in the philanthropic foundations of St. Joseph Medical Center and St. Mary’s Medical Center when the hospitals were sold to Prime Healthcare Services. Foundation board members and others had advocated for the foundation money to be allocated for local charity use.
“The Ascension dollars don’t take care of all the needs,” Wagner said, “but they create a sense of urgency that forces the community to see this as a worthwhile project.”
Former St. Joseph Foundation board chairman Charlie Jensen said he thought it would be “pleasing to the former foundation board members and the people who donated money to the foundation if the announced gift is coming from the foundation funds.”
Because St. Mary’s is located in Blue Springs, Wagner said, there’s a possibility that an eastern Jackson County mental health triage center also might be created in the future. In the near term, though, the central Kansas City center responds to the greatest need and is the only site with a firm plan.
The building, owned by the Missouri Department of Mental Health, will be leased to the city of Kansas City, which intends to sublease it to the yet-to-be selected operator of the center, Wagner said. The city is seeking operator bids, and it plans for the triage center to be operating by midsummer, or at least by October 2016. Wagner said the city has agreed to pay for interior improvements to the building.
The plan calls for eight “sobering beds” and eight “stabilizing beds,” where people can be held for up to 23 hours. After that, they would be referred to existing treatment centers or jail, as appropriate. The center is likely to serve about 6,000 people a year.
The attorney general’s participation in the Ascension negotiations mirrors activity that occurred after the former Health Midwest hospitals in the Kansas City area were sold to HCA Health Midwest in 2003. By law, the attorney general has the power to oversee the transfer of assets from a nonprofit to a for-profit entity, which was the situation with both sets of hospital sales.
In the earlier instance, the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City and the REACH Foundation were created. Together they received about $500 million in proceeds from the Health Midwest sales. The two foundations each year make millions of dollars in grants for local health care programs and services.
Koster said the recent negotiations made it clear that emergency attention to behavioral health and substance addiction problems was a priority in the Kansas City community. He said allocation of the Ascension funds, which had been held in escrow, “carries forward the purpose of the donations” that people had made to St. Joseph and St. Mary’s hospitals.
Nick Ragone, Ascension’s chief communications and marketing officer, said the hospital company was pleased to help fund the assessment center. The company no longer operates hospitals in the Kansas City area but it does still have a presence with three senior care centers.