Opinions

OPINION: Crisis Residential Centers – the next step in addressing Alaska’s behavioral health needs

Claman-Bishop

House Bill 172, which establishes crisis stabilization and residential centers, recently became law in Alaska. The legislation provides much-needed improvements for Alaska’s mental and behavioral health system and will improve public safety. Passage of HB 172 is part of a multi-year effort in which the Legislature, the governor and the community have worked together for Alaska.

Crisis stabilization centers and crisis residential centers are part of the Crisis Now structure that has improved behavioral health care and public safety in many other states. The Crisis Now framework connects individuals experiencing a mental or behavioral health crisis with appropriate care.

In our current system, without the improvements in HB 172, when a person is in crisis and someone calls 911, the police take the person to the hospital or to jail. When Crisis Now is operational in Alaska, a person in crisis could be served by a 24/7 crisis call center using the 988 suicide prevention and crisis lifeline for texts and calls, a mobile crisis team, or if necessary 23-hour crisis stabilization centers, 7-day crisis residential centers, and already-existing 30-day treatment facilities like the Alaska Psychiatric Institute.

With leadership from the Alaska Mental Health Trust, police, public health providers and elected officials traveled to other states to see Crisis Now in operation. We watched police officers take people experiencing a behavioral health crisis to a crisis center where they received effective treatment while police officers returned to patrol. Behavioral health professionals provided timely treatment to individuals in crisis and police officers returned to their public safety mission.

Recognizing that Alaska would improve public safety with Crisis Now services, I introduced legislation in 2020 to license the first crisis stabilization centers in Alaska. Introduced as House Bill 290, we worked with the Senate to incorporate crisis stabilization centers into Senate Bill 120, which soon became law. This legislation established crisis stabilization centers — a necessary intermediate treatment option for those facing mental health crises. An emerging component for improving the behavioral health continuum of care, these centers are open 24/7, staffed by mental health professionals, and provide prompt mental health evaluation and stabilization.

With passage of crisis stabilization legislation, we soon recognized the need for the second component of Crisis Now: crisis residential centers. HB 172, introduced by the governor and championed by the Mental Health Trust and state health officials, builds on the previous legislation by increasing the number of beds available for intermediate-term treatment for Alaskans in need while helping our public safety officers focus on crime prevention. The first step in passing the legislation was working with interested stakeholders to address their diverse interests and concerns. These stakeholders included the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, the Alaska Mental Health Trust, patient rights advocates, the Office of Public Advocacy, the Public Defender’s Office and the Alaska Disability Law Center.

We quickly learned that the first step in writing a new law that could affect the constitutional rights of those suffering from mental illness was making sure that the new law did not infringe on their constitutional rights. Accordingly, maintaining the existing rights and protections of disabled Alaskans is the foundation for HB 172. The legislation limits holding a person at a crisis stabilization center to 23 hours and limits holding a person at a crisis residential center to 7 days. These shorter stays for behavioral treatment are often a preferred alternative to a 30-day commitment to a long-term treatment facility like the Alaska Psychiatric Institute. HB 172 also improves the legal requirements so that both public and private guardians receive prompt notice whenever the courts hold a person for behavioral treatment.

HB 172 is the next step in addressing the mental and behavioral health needs of Alaskans in crisis. Major health care providers across Alaska are already moving forward with establishing these facilities. This legislation is a great example of Alaskans at all levels of government working together to improve public safety and make a positive difference in the lives of Alaskans.

Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2014. He has served on the Anchorage Assembly and also as acting mayor of Anchorage.

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Matt Claman

Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2014. He has served on the Anchorage Assembly and also as acting mayor of Anchorage.

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