Oregon Lawmakers Looking For Answers To Mental Health Crisis 


Oregon lawmakers are eying a proposal that would cost the state $15 million for behavioral health clinics. 

The goal is to get the federal government to pour millions more into Oregon’s mental health system as part of a state-federal matching program that’s now being tested in a pilot program. 

If approved, Oregon would  have a total of nearly $80 million of state and federal funds to operate certified behavioral health clinics. These facilities combine primary health care,  behavioral health care and substance use treatment.

Only eight states are involved in the pilot program nationwide. Oregon has 12 clinics. 

The program would be expanded in Oregon under Senate Bill 1552, which came before the Senate Committee on Mental Health on Monday, the first day of the short, 35-day session. It was one of two proposals for community mental health services presented to lawmakers. The other bill, Senate Bill 1553, directs the Oregon Health Authority to prepare a report on barriers to treatment for people who suffer from behavioral health problems and have other medical challenges, such as substance abuse. 

The proposals are part of a broader recognition that Oregon is in the midst of a severe mental health crisis. Oregon State Hospital has requested $20 million to open up two vacant units of its Junction City campus as the state-run mental hospital faces increasing demands to house people shuffled in through the criminal justice system and civil commitments. 

“I think we’re well overdue to have real conversations about how do we strengthen our mental health system in Oregon,” committee Chairman Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, said in a meeting with reporters on Monday about the priorities of the Democratic Senate members. 

Roblan said he visited a clinic in Burns, calling it an “amazing program in rural Oregon that’s meeting the needs of people with mental illness.” He said the program helps keep people in their communities. 

Lawmakers praise the program, but are careful not to oversell it as a silver bullet for the system.

“It’s a really good model,” Roblan said. “It’s too early to tell if it’s going to be a breakthrough model.”

The other states piloting clinics are Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania. 

The second bill has the goal of identifying ways that people with behavioral health and other needs can get services with fewer trips to doctor offices. 

Roblan said better coordination is needed for those patients, including in rural areas where they often have to travel long distances to see providers. 

Community mental health advocates and others expressed strong support for both proposals. 

Dr. Jeffrey Eisen, chief medical and health integration officer at Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, a designated federal center  in the Portland metro area, said the program has helped clients address gaps in primary and behavioral health care. It’s also led to a decrease in emergency room visits and hospitalizations, he said. 

He gave examples, such as a client who improved after getting treatment for both chronic pain and behavioral health issues and another patient who went down from nearly 70 emergency visits in the last year to just one in the past three months. 

“Upwards of $77 million dollars in mental health and addictions funding for Oregon is at stake here,” he said. “This is funding that has helped address many acute mental health and addictions crises that our state faces – namely, the lack of workforce to serve the great needs across our state, including provider shortages to address the opioid overdose epidemic.”

Oregon Recovers, an advocacy group for people suffering from addiction, supports the move to look for barriers. 

Andrew Swanson, the group’s policy and advocacy director, said action is needed, pointing to Oregon as having the third-highest rate of untreated addiction nationwide, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA. More than 2,100 Oregonians die a year from alcohol-related problems or drug overdoses.

“We fully support the passage of SB 1553 because it will remove barriers that currently limit the behavioral health workforce and hinder access to treatment,” he said. “This bill is the first logical step in building capacity to treat people with both substance use disorder and mental health diagnoses.”

Andy Smith, policy manager for the Association of Oregon Counties, testified in support of the bill. 

“For us to stretch the dollar like that is really amazing,” he said, adding that the program helps with problems like opioid abuse, veterans and the criminal justice system. 

“This is the time to stay on this train,” Smith said. 

You can reach Ben Botkin at [email protected] or via Twitter @BenBotkin1.


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