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For the first time, Salt Lake County residents will have somewhere to turn besides an emergency room or 911 when they or their loved ones are psychotic, having a panic attack or considering suicide.

Starting on Thursday, the county will deploy mobile crisis outreach teams to help people having a mental health crisis.

While the unit is being paid for with Medicaid dollars, it can be used by anyone, regardless of insurance status or ability to pay.

The teams — two for adults and one dedicated to children — will deploy to the person at their home, workplace or on the street.

"Theoretically we go anywhere," said Ross VanVranken, executive director of the University Neuropsychiatric Unit, which won the contract to provide the crisis teams.

He predicted the teams will be busy, since the new crisis line UNI also runs receives up to 45 crisis calls a day. Countywide, hospitals admits 75 to 80 involuntary patients a month.

Plus, "there's a whole slew of other people who basically get ignored in the community unless they create a situation where they come to law enforcement's attention," VanVranken said. "There will be a lot of families calling."

The teams will include a licensed social worker or psychologist, a peer specialist (someone who has had a mental health problem and is trained to help others) and an "examiner" who can determine whether the person should be involuntarily committed. A psychiatrist will be available by phone as well.

After a person calls the crisis hotline and staff determine there is an emergency, the team must respond in person within 30 minutes to evaluate and provide therapy or arrange appointments with a therapist.

The goal is to avoid hospitalization when it isn't necessary, said Rick Elorreaga, executive director of OptumHealth, the manager of the county's Medicaid mental health funding.

"The idea is to get to the people early before the crisis escalates … de-escalate the situation and come up with a plan to help that person," he said.

The county required OptumHealth create the mobile units when it took over the county's $50 million mental health Medicaid contract in July. The for-profit company, which contracts out services, has saved about $3.2 million since then — largely because its main contractor, Valley Mental Health, didn't provide the expected volume of care to patients. Some of that savings — $1.6 million — will help pay for the mobile crisis units for one year. Another $800,000 is expected to come from non-Medicaid funds from the state and county.

The county is working to make the funding sustainable by seeking Medicaid reimbursement for the care.

Salt Lake City Det. Ron Bruno, who oversees the law enforcement Crisis Intervention Team that responds to the mentally ill, said the mobile units are"absolutely" needed. The department responds to complaints about the mentally ill "several times a day."

Police will continue to respond in dangerous situations, he said. But he anticipates the presence of the mobile team will reduce the number of people police transport to the hospital.

"Often, somebody that's struggling in the community just needs time to sit and talk to a mental health professional," he said.

Barry Rose, manager of the crisis teams and the crisis line, said the team can be called when someone is considering suicide but doesn't have a plan, for example.

"If somebody's talking about feeling suicidal or having thoughts they may act on, we certainly can talk with them," Rose said.

But he stressed that police should still be called if the crisis is an emergency — if somebody is locked in the bathroom slitting their wrists, for example.

Having a mental health crisis?

In Salt Lake County, call the 24-hour crisis line at 801-587-3000. Teams are available to help over the phone and, starting Thursday, to assist you in person. —

Having a mental health crisis?

In Salt Lake County, call the 24-hour crisis line at 801-587-3000. Teams are available to help over the phone and, starting Thursday, to assist you in person.