Looking to limit trips to the emergency room or jail, Missoula County and a host of partners are working to open a crisis receiving center with enough capacity to meet the city's current needs.

The county this week approved an agreement with the Western Montana Mental Health Center and directed $113,000 in grant funding to help it establish the crisis center, which should become operational later this year.

“This is a huge leap forward in how we help folks in crisis,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “The center is a place to go voluntarily or brought to with assistance. They can be there for 24 hours and let whatever is in their system leave their system, so they can properly have a mental health evaluation and take the next step.”

The model is use elsewhere in the county and has been praised for its success. Among other things, advocates contend, it helps limit unnecessary trips to the emergency room or jail, which saves taxpayers' money down the road.

It also provides the patient with an opportunity to move beyond his or her crisis and begin getting proper help. The program would work in partnership with the Mobile Support Team established by the city two years ago.

“If someone is under the influence of some substance where we can't properly do a mental health evaluation, those people are brought to the ER or possibly jail. Those are our only options, but they're not the best options,” said Slotnick. “Here, they can come back to themselves and emerge and meet with someone to help take that next step.”

The Mobile Support Team saved Missoula taxpayers an estimated $252,000 over a six-month period by diverting clients from jail and reducing visits to the emergency room, data released last October suggested.

The team diverted 169 emergency room visits and 13 trips to the jail. Of the 537 calls the team responded to, it saw 293 individual clients, suggesting a number of repeat clients.

Terry Kendrick, the program manager for the Strategic Alliance for Improved Behavioral Health, said JP Research and Evaluation conducted an analysis on the behavioral health needs in Missoula County and estimated that around 20 crisis beds were needed per night.

As it stands, she said, only five voluntary beds are available at Dakota Place, along with two involuntary beds.

“The new crisis receiving center would have 16 beds. Along with Dakota Place, it should take care of that need,” Kendrick said. “St. Pats in the first three quarters of 2020 averaged 7.5 people per day in the ER for a behavioral health issue.”

Broken down by demographics, the data suggests that crisis calls in Missoula involve an equal number of males and females, though the age of the clients vary. When the data was gathered, roughly 18 patients ranged in age from 10 to 19 while 34 patients were between the age of 20 and 29.

However, those between the ages of 40 and 59 represented the highest call volume at 80. The median age was roughly 45.

Erin Kautz with grants and community planning said Missoula County serves as a pass-through for the grant funding. The actual crisis center is the focus of several other organizations including the Strategic Alliance for Improved Behavioral Health, Providence St. Patrick Hospital and the Western Montana Mental Health Center.

Slotnick said it's time to tip up a crisis receiving center in Missoula to meet current and future needs. Once open on the Western Montana Mental Health Center campus, it would become the latest step in the city and county's ongoing efforts to address behavioral health crises.

“We're going to use American Rescue Plan Act money to get his refurbished and stood up,” said Slotnick. “This will lessen financial pressure on the ER and jail and help people move forward with whatever is ailing them.