Utah House lawmakers advance bill that would strengthen the state’s behavioral health crisis response


Maddie McCarthy


The Utah House Health and Human Services Committee discussed and unanimously recommended House Bill 71 earlier this week.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason (R-Salt Lake County), aims to modify the state’s behavioral health crisis response in order to better serve rural communities and strengthen Utah’s behavioral health crisis first response system.

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Eliason said there are three things needed for a strong behavioral health crisis system: someone to call, someone to respond to the call, and a place for the person in crisis to go. The bill focuses on adding more crisis responders and crisis receiving centers to the system.

There are seven counties in Utah that have these centers, including Cache County, Weber County, Davis County, Salt Lake County, Utah County, Carbon County, and Washington County. Eliason recognized that there is a lack of crisis receiving centers in rural areas.

“Local mental health authorities that provide services there often have great difficulty in dealing with people in crisis. Their local hospital may not be equipped to handle them. They have to have a long drive to Wasatch Front and then when they get there they often find there is not a bed available. So we’re seeking to address those issues in our rural areas.”

— Eliason

The bill would secure funding to add two additional crisis centers in rural Utah.

“The bill also seeks to address additional funding for mobile crisis outreach teams, which fortunately, as we have funded those, have been a tremendous resource to our state,” Eliason said. “There are currently gaps around the state that could benefit from a mobile crisis team.”

Having more mobile crisis teams will allow people experiencing a behavioral health crisis to be met with first responders prepared to help them, instead of immediately going into the hands of law enforcement, who Eliason said are often not equipped to deal with a behavioral health crisis.

This would also help keep people from unnecessarily being taken to jail. Instead they can be taken to a place where they would receive help.

Eliason said the bill is a result of the work of the state’s Behavioral Health Crisis Response Commission.

Ross Van Vranken, chair of the commission and executive director of the University of Utah Huntsman Mental Health Institute, explained how they developed the bill.

“What we’ve done over the past five years is follow a gap analysis that was actually paid for and commissioned by the Utah Hospital Association (UHA) in 2019,” Van Vranken said. “The report was authored by the [Kem C.] Gardner [Policy] Institute. What it did was look at priorities and giant gaps in terms of the behavioral health and substance use system in the state of Utah, and it identified the need for a coordinated crisis system for the state.”

David Gessel, executive vice president of UHA, provided public comment in support of the bill.

“It’s very needed,” Gessel said. “We’ve done the help as best we can in the urban areas. We need to help the rural folks and they need it just as much as anyone.”

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