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Local Afghans who aided U.S. troops plead for their families to be evacuated

WXXI Local Stories - Mon, 06/14/2021 - 5:30am
The United States is preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan by September 20 years after invading the country in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. Meanwhile, the Taliban is laying siege in more areas of the country. Local Afghans who assisted the U.S. troops, like Abdul Majid Habibi, are pleading for the U.S. to evacuate their families. Abdul served in the Afghan army for more than 35 years when he pivoted and started working with the U.S armed forces. “I was a cultural advisor and translator, interpreter and translated very, very complicated letters,” Abdul said. After working with U.S. troops for about 16 years, Abdul came here with his son, Walid Omid, under a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV). The program provides a green card to Afghans who worked with U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan. “These visas go out to those whose lives are at risk because of their service to the U.S.,” said Ellen Smith, executive director at Keeping Our Promise, a program that resettles wartime allies.

Local Afghans who aided US troops plea for their families to be evacuated

WXXI US News - Mon, 06/14/2021 - 5:30am
The United States is preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan by September 20 years after invading the country in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. Meanwhile, the Taliban is laying siege in more areas of the country. Local Afghans who assisted the U.S. troops, like Abdul Majid Habibi, are pleading for the U.S. to evacuate their families. Abdul served in the Afghan army for more than 35 years when he pivoted and started working with the U.S armed forces. “I was a cultural advisor and translator, interpreter and translated very, very complicated letters,” Abdul said. After working with U.S. troops for about 16 years, Abdul came here with his son, Walid Omid, under a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV). The program provides a green card to Afghans who worked with U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan. “These visas go out to those whose lives are at risk because of their service to the U.S.,” said Ellen Smith, executive director at Keeping Our Promise, a program that resettles wartime allies.

Local Afghans who aided US troops plea for their families to be evacuated

WXXI US News - Mon, 06/14/2021 - 5:30am
The United States is preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan by September 20 years after invading the country in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. Meanwhile, the Taliban is laying siege in more areas of the country. Local Afghans who assisted the U.S. troops, like Abdul Majid Habibi, are pleading for the U.S. to evacuate their families. Abdul served in the Afghan army for more than 35 years when he pivoted and started working with the U.S armed forces. “I was a cultural advisor and translator, interpreter and translated very, very complicated letters,” Abdul said. After working with U.S. troops for about 16 years, Abdul came here with his son, Walid Omid, under a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV). The program provides a green card to Afghans who worked with U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan. “These visas go out to those whose lives are at risk because of their service to the U.S.,” said Ellen Smith, executive director at Keeping Our Promise, a program that resettles wartime allies.

Pandemic Benefits Created Hiring Issues, Tennessee Restaurant Owner Says

NPR Topics: Economy - Mon, 06/14/2021 - 5:08am

NPR's Steve Inskeep talks to Peter Demos, a restaurant owner in middle Tennessee, who says extended federal unemployment has made it difficult to staff his restaurants.

Republican Governors In 25 States End Jobless Aid Early

NPR Topics: Economy - Mon, 06/14/2021 - 5:08am

More than 300,000 people have lost their pandemic unemployment benefits. GOP governors in more than two dozen states ended jobless aid ahead of schedule — in an effort to push people back to work.

As Inflation Rises, Will The Fed Make A Move To Counter The Hike?

NPR Topics: Economy - Mon, 06/14/2021 - 5:08am

NPR's Sarah McCammon talks to David Wessel, director of the Hutchins Center at the Brookings Institution, ahead of a meeting of the Federal Reserve Board to discuss the economic recovery.

China Has Promised To Go Carbon-Neutral By 2060, But Coal Is Still King

WXXI US News - Mon, 06/14/2021 - 5:08am
DATONG, China — The walls and ceiling of the Nanshan mine shimmer black, carved straight into a 200 million-year-old coal seam running 1,300 feet underground. Black veins of Jurassic-era coal deposits still thread Shanxi province in China's north, enriching public coffers and keeping generations of miners steadily employed. Last year, China committed to going carbon-neutral by 2060, an ambitious undertaking for a country that still relies on coal for more than half its energy needs. The country has invested heavily in solar, wind and nuclear energy. Yet coal-fired heavy industry still made up about 37% of all its economic activity last year, and some provinces are even planning to increase coal-fired power generation. These contradictions and the slow, convoluted transition away from coal are already being felt in Datong, an ancient walled city in the heart of China's coal country in Shanxi. There, miners continue to pump out coal even as the state throttles new mine licenses and funds

It's Personal: Zoom'd Out Workplace Ready For Face-To-Face Conversations To Return

WXXI US News - Mon, 06/14/2021 - 5:08am
Studying the brains of fruit flies is not the kind of work that you can easily do from home. You need special microscopes and something called a fly-ball tracker , which neuroscientist Vivek Jayaraman likens to a treadmill. A very tiny treadmill. "We position them on a little ball. The fly walks on the ball. It's in a virtual reality space," explains Jayaraman in his lab at the Janelia Research Campus , part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. But access to lab equipment was not the only hurdle — or the biggest one — in the pandemic. Jayaraman says the absence of freewheeling discussions and impromptu chats held back the science over the past year. The migration to telework and virtual meetings stole away the spontaneity that he believes drives their best work. "It really affected us perhaps more than many institutions," Jayaraman says. Vivek Jayaraman is head of Mechanistic Cognitive Neuroscience at Janelia. Matt Staley / Janelia Research Campus Now that COVID-19 vaccines are

5 Things To Watch At The Biden-Putin Summit

WXXI US News - Mon, 06/14/2021 - 5:02am
The Biden administration wants a more stable and predictable relationship with Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to show that his country is taken seriously as a world power. That is the backdrop for the first summit between the U.S. and Russian presidents, which will take place in Geneva on Wednesday. "Russia is quite invested in having a very friction-filled rather than friction-free relationship with the United States," warns Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution. U.S.-Russian relations have been in a downward spiral since Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and its interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. With recent ransomware attacks on U.S. companies, the poisoning and jailing of a leading opposition figure in Russia, and Kremlin support for a brutal crackdown on protesters in Belarus, it's easy to see that the summit between Biden and Putin has a crowded agenda. The expectation in Moscow is that President Biden will be much tougher on Russia than the

Anti-Vaccine Activists Use A Federal Database To Spread Fear About COVID Vaccines

NPR Health Blog - Mon, 06/14/2021 - 5:00am

The system is designed to provide early warning of what might or might not be actual side effects. But anti-vaccine groups are bending the data to their own ends.

(Image credit: Matt Slocum/AP)

Categories: NPR Blogs

In Alleged Health Care ‘Money Grab,’ Nation’s Largest Hospital Chain Cashes In on Trauma Centers

Latest Updates From Kaiser Health News - Mon, 06/14/2021 - 5:00am

After falling from a ladder and cutting his arm, Ed Knight said, he found himself at Richmond, Virginia’s Chippenham Hospital surrounded by nearly a dozen doctors, nurses and technicians — its crack “trauma team” charged with saving the most badly hurt victims of accidents and assaults.

But Knight’s wound, while requiring about 30 stitches, wasn’t life-threatening. Hospital records called it “mild.” The people in white coats quickly scattered, he remembered, and he went home about three hours later.

“Basically, it was just a gash on my arm,” said Knight, 71. “The emergency team that they assembled didn’t really do anything.”

Nevertheless, Chippenham, owned by for-profit chain HCA Healthcare, included a $17,000 trauma team “activation” fee on Knight’s bill, which totaled $52,238 and included three CT scans billed at $14,000. His care should have cost closer to $3,500 total, according to claims consultant WellRithms, which analyzed the charges for KHN.

HCA Healthcare’s activation fees run as high as $50,000 per patient and are sometimes 10 times greater than those at other hospitals, according to publicly posted price lists. Such charges have made trauma centers, once operated mainly by established teaching hospitals, a key part of the company’s growth and profit-generating strategy, corporate officials have said. HCA’s stock has doubled in three years. The biggest U.S. hospital operator along with the Department of Veterans Affairs, HCA has opened trauma centers in more than half its 179 hospitals and says it runs 1 of every 20 such facilities in the country.

And it’s not slowing down.

HCA “has basically taken a position that all of their hospitals should be trauma centers,” said Dr. Robert Winchell, describing conversations he had with HCA officials. Winchell is a trauma surgeon and former chairman of the trauma evaluation and planning committee at the American College of Surgeons.

Trauma patients are typically those severely injured in automobile accidents or falls or wounded by knives or guns.

State or local regulators confer the designation “trauma center,” often in concert with standards verified by the American College of Surgeons. The status allows a cascade of lucrative reimbursement, including activation fees billed on top of regular charges for medical care. Trauma centers are mostly exempt from 1970s-era certificate-of-need laws enacted to limit excessive hospital spending and expansion. The bills for all this — reaching into tens of thousands of dollars — go to private insurers, Medicare or Medicaid, or patients themselves.

“Once a hospital has a trauma designation, it can charge thousands of dollars in activation fees for the same care seen in the same emergency room,” said Stacie Sasso, executive director of the Health Services Coalition, made up of unions and employers fighting trauma center expansion by HCA and others in Nevada.

HCA’s expansion into trauma centers alarms health policy analysts who suggest its motive is more about chasing profit than improving patient care. Data collected by the state of Florida, analyzed by KHN, shows that regional trauma cases and expensive trauma bills rise sharply after HCA opens such centers, suggesting that many patients classified as trauma victims would have previously been treated less expensively in a regular emergency room.

Patients admitted to HCA and other for-profit hospitals in Florida with a trauma-team activation were far more likely to be only mildly or moderately injured than those at not-for-profit hospitals, researchers have found.

HCA is “cherry-picking patients,” said Ed Jimenez, CEO of the University of Florida Health Shands, which runs a Level I trauma center, the highest designation. “What you find is an elderly person who fell and broke their hip who could be perfectly well treated at their local hospital now becomes a trauma patient.”

HCA’s trauma center expansion makes superior care available to more patients, providing “lifesaving clinical services while treating all critically injured patients,” said company spokesperson Harlow Sumerford.

Richmond’s population “is booming,” said Chippenham spokesperson Jeffrey Caldwell. “This increase in demand requires that the regional health care system keep up.”

Trauma Is Big Business

HCA’s trauma center boom picked up speed in Florida a decade ago and has spread to its hospitals in Virginia, Nevada, Texas and other states. It has sparked fierce fights over who handles highly profitable trauma cases and debates over whether costs will soar and care suffer when rival centers go head-to-head competing for patients.

“There’s no question it’s a money grab” by HCA, said Jimenez, who was part of a largely unsuccessful effort to stop HCA’s trauma center expansion in Florida. “It was clear that their trauma activation fees were five or six times larger than ours.”

In a process shielded from public view in Virginia, Chippenham recently applied for and won the highest trauma center designation, Level I, providing the most sophisticated care — and putting it squarely in competition with nearby VCU Health. VCU has run the region’s only Level I facility for decades. In October, Chippenham announced a contract for its own helicopter ambulance, which gives it another way to increase its trauma business, by flying patients in from miles away. The Virginia Department of Health rejected KHN’s request to review HCA’s Chippenham trauma center application and related documents.

“This is a corporate strategy” by HCA “to grow revenue, maximize reimbursement and meet the interest of stockholders,” said Dr. Arthur Kellermann, CEO of VCU Health, who says his nonprofit, state-run facility is sufficient for the region’s trauma care needs. “Many people in the state should be concerned that the end result will be a dilution of care, higher costs and poorer outcomes.”

Chippenham’s Caldwell said the “redundancy” with VCU “allows the region to be better prepared for mass trauma events.”

Studies show trauma centers need high volumes of complex cases to stay sharp. Researchers call it the “practice makes perfect” effect. Patients treated for traumatic brain injuries at hospitals seeing fewer than six such cases a year died at substantially higher rates than such patients in more experienced hospitals, according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Neurosurgery.

Another study, published in the Annals of Surgery, showed that a decrease as small as 1% in trauma center volume — because of competition or other reasons — substantially increased the risk that patients would die.

By splitting a limited number of cases, a competing, cross-town trauma center could set the stage for subpar results at both hospitals, goes the argument. The number of VCU’s admitted adult trauma patients decreased from nearly 3,600 in 2014, before Chippenham attained Level II status, to 3,200 in 2019, VCU officials said.

Chippenham was the only Level I center in Virginia that declined to disclose its trauma patient volume to KHN.

“People are trying to push the [trauma center] designation process beyond what may be good for the major hospitals that are already providing trauma care,” said Dr. David Hoyt, executive director of the American College of Surgeons, speaking generally. Local authorities who make those decisions, he said, can be “pressured by a hospital system that has a lot of economic pull in a community.”

Unlike regular emergency departments, Level I and Level II trauma centers make trauma surgeons, neurosurgeons and special equipment available round-the-clock. Centers with Levels III or IV designations offer fewer services but are still more capable than many emergency rooms, with round-the-clock lab services and extra training, for example.

Hospitals defend trauma team activation fees as necessary to cover the overhead of having a team of elite emergency specialists at the ready. At HCA hospitals they can run more than $40,000 per case, according to publicly posted charge lists, although the amount paid by insurers and patients is often less, depending on the coverage.

“Fees associated with trauma activation are based on our costs to immediately deploy lifesaving resources and measures 24/7,” said HCA spokesperson Sumerford, adding that low-income and uninsured patients often pay nothing for trauma care. “What patients actually pay for their hospital care has more to do with their insurance plan” than the total charges, he said.

There is no standard accounting for trauma-related costs incurred by hospitals. One method involves multiplying hourly pay for members of the trauma team by the potential hours worked. Hospitals don’t reveal calculations, but the wide variation in fees suggests they are often set with an eye on revenue rather than true costs, say industry analysts.

Reasonable charges for Knight’s total bill would have been $3,537, not $52,238, according to the analysis by WellRithms, a claims consulting firm that examined his medical records and Chippenham’s costs filed with Medicare. Given his minor injury, the $17,000 trauma activation fee “is not necessary,” said Dr. Ira Weintraub, WellRithms’ chief medical officer.

Often insurers pay substantially less than billed charges, especially Medicare, Knight's insurer. He paid nothing out-of-pocket, and Chippenham collected a total of $1,138 for his care, HCA officials said after this article was initially published. But hospitals can maximize revenue by charging high trauma fees to all insurers, including those required to pay a percentage of charges, say medical billing consultants.

VCU Health charges up to $13,455 for trauma activation, according to its charge list.

Average HCA trauma activation charges are $26,000 in states where the company does business — three times higher than those of non-HCA hospitals, according to data from Hospital Pricing Specialists, a consulting firm that analyzed trauma charges in Medicare claims for KHN.

The findings are similar to those reported by the Tampa Bay Times in 2014, early in HCA’s trauma center expansion. The Times found that Florida HCA trauma centers were charging patients and insurers tens of thousands of dollars more per case than other hospitals.

Treating trauma patients in the ER is only the beginning of the revenue stream. Intensive inpatient treatment and long patient recoveries add to the income.

“We have more Level I, Level II trauma centers today than we have ever had in the company history,” HCA’s then-CEO, Milton Johnson, told stock analysts in 2016. “That strategy in turn feeds surgical growth. That strategy in turn feeds neurosciences growth, it feeds rehab growth.” Trauma centers attract “a certain cadre of high-value patients,” Dr. Jonathan Perlin, HCA’s chief medical officer, told analysts at a 2017 conference.

Patients at HCA’s largely suburban hospitals are more likely than those at an average hospital to carry private insurance, which pays much more than Medicare and Medicaid. More than half the company’s revenue in 2020 came from private insurers, regulatory filings show. Hospitals, in general, collect a little more than a third of their revenue from private insurers, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

HCA’s trauma cases can fit the same profile. At Chippenham, in south Richmond, trauma cases are “90% blunt trauma,” according to the hospital's online job posting last year for a trauma medical director. Blunt-trauma patients are generally victims of car accidents and falls and tend to have good insurance, analysts say.

VCU and other urban hospitals, on the other hand, treat a higher share of patients with gun and knife injuries — penetrating trauma — who are more often uninsured or covered by Medicaid. About 75% of VCU’s trauma cases are classified as blunt trauma, hospital officials said.

The 90% figure is “not accurate today,” Caldwell said. “Chippenham’s current mix of trauma type is aligned with that of other trauma centers in the region, and we treat traumas ranging from motor vehicle accidents to gunshots, stabbings and other critical injuries regularly.”

‘Trauma Drama’ in Florida and Beyond

HCA’s growth strategy is part of a wider trend. From 2010 to 2020 the number of Level I and Level II trauma centers verified by the American College of Surgeons nationwide increased from 343 to 567.

Nowhere has HCA added trauma centers more aggressively or the fight over trauma center growth been more acrimonious than in Florida. The state’s experience over the past decade may offer a preview of what’s to come in Virginia and elsewhere.

In the thick of the controversy, legislators stepped in to broker a 2018 truce — but only after the number of HCA trauma centers in the state had grown from one to 11 over more than a decade and helped spark an explosion in trauma cases, according to Florida Department of Health data.

News headlines called it “trauma drama.” Hospitals with existing centers repeatedly filed legal challenges to stop the expansion, with little effect. Florida’s governor at the time was Rick Scott, former chief executive of Columbia/HCA, a predecessor company to HCA.

After launching Level II centers across the state, HCA officials urged Florida regulators not to adopt CDC guidelines recommending severely injured patients be treated at the highest level of trauma care in a region — Level I, if available.

HCA “kept on working, working, working, working for 10 years” to gain trauma center approvals over objections, said Mark Delegal, who helped broker the legislative settlement as a lobbyist for large safety-net hospitals. “Once they had what they wanted, they were happy to lock the door behind them.”

HCA hospitals “serve the health care needs of their communities and adjust or expand services as those needs evolve,” said Sumerford.

As HCA added trauma centers, trauma-activation billings and the number of trauma cases spiked, according to Florida Department of Health data analyzed by KHN. Statewide, inpatient trauma cases doubled to 35,102 in the decade leading up to 2020, even though the population rose by only 15%. HCA’s share of statewide trauma cases jumped from 4% to 24%, the data shows.

Charges for trauma activations, also known as trauma alerts, for HCA’s Florida hospitals averaged $26,890 for inpatients in 2019 while the same fees averaged $9,916 for non-HCA Florida hospitals, the data shows. Total average charges, including medical care, were $282,600 per case in 2019 for inpatient trauma cases at HCA hospitals, but $139,000 for non-HCA hospitals.

HCA's substantially higher charges didn't necessarily result from patients with especially severe injuries, public university research found.

Over three years ending in 2014, Florida patients with sprains, mild cuts and other non-life-threatening injuries were “significantly more likely” to be admitted under trauma alerts at HCA hospitals and other for-profit hospitals than at nonprofit hospitals, according to research by University of South Florida economist Etienne Pracht and colleagues. HCA hospitals have admitted emergency department Medicare patients at substantially higher-than-average rates since 2011, suggesting that at other hospitals many would have been sent home, new research by the Service Employees International Union found.

“What’s going on with HCA is the Wall Street model they’re following,” said Pracht, who provided KHN with additional Florida Department of Health data showing soaring trauma cases. “And Wall Street’s not happy unless you’re expanding. They’re driven by the motive to keep the stock price high.”

Lobbying and Campaign Dollars

In Virginia, health care organizations need to go through a lengthy and public application process to add something as basic as a $1 million MRI imaging machine.

But to open or upgrade a trauma center, all that’s needed is the approval of the health commissioner after a confidential qualification procedure. Chippenham did not seek or obtain Level I verification from the American College of Surgeons before getting Level I approval from the state. It is ACS-verified as a Level II center and, Caldwell said, is seeking Level I status with ACS.

Virginia requires an “extensive application” and “in-depth” site reviews by experts before a hospital gains status as a trauma center, Dr. M. Norman Oliver, the commissioner, said in an email. “Chippenham Hospital met the requirements” to become a Level I center, he said.

Nearly 80% of HCA’s Level I and Level II trauma centers have been verified by the American College of Surgeons “and the others currently are pursuing this verification,” said HCA spokesperson Sumerford.

As in other states, HCA invests heavily in Virginia in political influence. Eleven Virginia lobbyists are registered with the state to advocate on HCA’s behalf. One lobbyist spent more than $5,000 from December 2019 through February 2020 treating public officials to reception spreads and meals at posh Richmond restaurants such as L'Opossum and Morton’s the Steakhouse, lobbying records submitted to Virginia’s Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council show. HCA’s political action committee donated $160,000 to state candidates last year, according to the records.

Like other hospital systems, HCA hires former paramedics for “EMS relations” or “EMS outreach” jobs. HCA’s EMS liaisons are expected to develop a “business plan, driving service line growth,” according to its employment ads.

Chippenham’s decision to start a helicopter ambulance operation last year to compete with others in transporting trauma patients surprised some public officials. HCA and its contractor had filed paperwork for the operation to be reimbursed by insurers when Richmond City Council members learned about it. Members “were not up to speed on this matter,” council member Kristen Larson told a May 2020 meeting of the Richmond Ambulance Authority, according to the minutes.

Chippenham’s air ambulance partner, private equity-owned Med-Trans, has been the subject of numerous media reports of patients saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in out-of-network surprise bills. It’s not unusual for air ambulances to charge $30,000 or more for transporting a patient from a highway accident or just across town, according to news reports.

Last year, 85% of Med-Trans flights for Virginia patients with health insurance were in-network, said a company spokesperson. But Med-Trans is out of network for Virginia members of Aetna and UnitedHealthcare, two of the state’s biggest carriers, said spokespeople for those companies. Med-Trans is part of Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield’s network, an Anthem spokesperson said.

HCA runs trauma centers “really well,” said Winchell, who runs the Level I trauma center at NewYork-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center.

But “there are clearly areas of oversupply” for trauma centers generally, he said.

Instead of letting a drive for profits dictate trauma center expansion, health authorities need “objective and transparent metrics” to guide the designation of trauma centers, Winchell recently wrote in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons.

Free-market advocate “Adam Smith might have been a good economist,” he wrote, “but he would have been a very poor designer of trauma systems.”

KHN data editor Elizabeth Lucas contributed to this report.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.


This story can be republished for free (details).

Categories: National News Content

‘An Arm and a Leg’: When Your Insurance Company Says No, How to Ask for a Yes

Latest Updates From Kaiser Health News - Mon, 06/14/2021 - 5:00am

Can’t see the audio player? Click here to listen.

Jeannine Cain started her career dealing with insurance companies for various medical offices. Later she worked for Blue Cross Blue Shield, and now she is a health care data consultant. She really knows how things operate behind the scenes.

When her son got a jumbo-size medical bill, she put her knowledge to work — and wrote an appeal letter. Now she’s sharing that knowledge — and the letter — with us.

Go here to see Cain’s letter with notes about the details she was careful to include.

Here’s a transcript of this episode.

“An Arm and a Leg” is a co-production of Kaiser Health News and Public Road Productions.

To keep in touch with “An Arm and a Leg,” subscribe to the newsletter. You can also follow the show on Facebook and Twitter. And if you’ve got stories to tell about the health care system, the producers would love to hear from you.

To hear all Kaiser Health News podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to “An Arm and a Leg” on iTunesPocket CastsGoogle Play or Spotify.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.


This story can be republished for free (details).

Categories: National News Content

In Mental Health Crises, a 911 Call Now Brings a Mixed Team of Helpers — And Maybe No Cops

Latest Updates From Kaiser Health News - Mon, 06/14/2021 - 5:00am

By the time Kiki Radermacher, a mental health therapist, arrived at a Missoula, Montana, home on an emergency 911 call in late May, the man who had called for help was backed into a corner and yelling at police officers.

The home, which he was renting, was about to be sold. He had called 911 when his fear of becoming homeless turned to thoughts of killing himself.

“I asked him, ‘Will you sit with me?’” recalled Radermacher, a member of the city’s mobile crisis response team who answered the call with a medic and helped connect the man with support services. “We really want to empower people, to find solutions.”

Missoula began sending this special crew on emergency mental health calls in November as a pilot project, and next month the program will become permanent. It’s one of six mobile crisis response initiatives in Montana — up from one at the start of 2019. And four more local governments applied for state grants this year to form teams.

Nationwide, more communities are creating units in which mental health professionals are the main responders to psychiatric crises instead of cops, though no official count exists of the teams that are up and running.

More support is on the way. The covid relief package President Joe Biden signed in March offers states Medicaid funding to jump-start such services. By July 2022, a national 988 hotline, modeled on 911, is slated to launch for people to reach trained suicide prevention specialists and mental health counselors.

Protests against police brutality in the past year have helped propel the shift across the United States. While one rallying cry has been to “defund the police,” these crisis intervention programs — the sort that employ therapists like Radermacher — are often funded in addition to law enforcement departments, not drawing from existing policing budgets.

Studies suggest such services enable people in crisis to get help instead of being transported away in handcuffs. But the move away from policing mental health is still a national experiment, with ongoing debate about who should be part of the response, and limited research on which model is best. Even then, not all communities can afford and staff separate mental health teams.

“I don’t know that there’s a consensus of what the best approach is at this point,” said Amy Watson, a professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who has studied such crisis intervention. “We need to move towards figuring out what are the important elements of these models, where are the pieces of variation and where those variations make sense.”

The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration sets minimum expectations for teams, such as including a health care professional and connecting people to more services, if needed. Ideally, the guidelines suggest, the team should include a crisis response specialist who has personally experienced mental health challenges, and the team should respond to the calls without law enforcement.

Still, crisis response teams vary significantly in their makeup and approach. For more than 40 years, the Los Angeles Police Department has deployed teams in which police officers and mental health workers respond together. It boasts the program is one of the nation’s earliest to do so. A program out of Eugene, Oregon, which has been copied across the U.S., teams a crisis intervention worker with a nurse, paramedic or emergency medical technician. In Georgia, 911 emergency dispatchers steer calls to a statewide crisis center that can deploy mobile units that include professionals with backgrounds in social work, counseling and nursing. In Montana, teams are based within law enforcement departments, medical facilities or crisis homes.

“Mobile crisis response, in whatever format it looks like, is becoming more and more the norm,” said Kari Auclair, an area director for Western Montana Mental Health Center, a nonprofit treatment program. “In some communities, it’s going to be the church group that’s going to be part of a crisis response, because that’s who people go to and that’s what they’ve got.”

Defenders of the various models tout reasons for their teams’ makeups and match-ups: Medics can recognize a diabetic blood sugar crash that might mimic substance misuse or a mental health crisis; police can watch for danger if tensions escalate; and crews tethered to hospitals’ behavioral health units have a team of doctors on standby they can consult.

Many crisis teams still work directly with law enforcement, sometimes responding together when called or staying on the scene after officers leave. In Montana, for example, 61% of the calls that crisis teams handled also involved law enforcement, according to state data.

Zoe Barnard, administrator for Montana’s addictive and mental disorders division, said her state is still establishing a baseline for what works well there. Even after they’ve worked out a standard, she added, local governments will continue to need flexibility in how they set up their programs.

“I’m a realist,” Barnard said. “There will be parts of the state that are going to have limitations related to workforce, and trying to put them into a cookie-cutter model might keep some from doing something that really does the job well.”

In some areas, recruiting mental health workers to such teams is nearly impossible. Federal data shows 125 million people live in areas with a shortage of mental health professionals, a problem exacerbated in rural America. That lack of expertise and support can fuel the crises that warrant emergency help.

In Helena, Montana’s capital, for example, a crisis crew that formed in November must still fill two positions before services can run round-the-clock. All across the U.S., with these sorts of high-stress jobs often paid through cobbled-together grants, retaining staff is a challenge.

Being flexible will be key for programs as they develop, said Jeffrey Coots, who directs an initiative at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City to prevent unnecessary imprisonment.

“We’re trying to figure our way out of historical inequities in mental health care services,” Coots said. “The best thing to do is to run that demonstration project, and then adapt your team based on the data.”

And for the people in these crises who need help, having an alternative to a police officer can mean a big difference, said Tyler Steinebach, executive director of Hope Health Alliance Inc., which offers behavioral crisis training for medics across Montana. He knows firsthand because he has both bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorders and has had to call 911 when his own mental health has plummeted.

“You know cops are coming, almost certainly,” Steinebach said, from his personal experience. “You’re trying to figure out what to say to them because you’re trying to fight for yourself to get treatment or to get somewhere where you can talk to somebody — but you’re also trying to not get hauled off in handcuffs.”

Gallatin County Sheriff Dan Springer also noticed the benefits after two mental health professionals started to respond to 911 calls in Bozeman and the surrounding area in 2019. Although deputies in his department are trained in crisis intervention, he said that goes only so far.

“When I hear deputies say the mental health provider is a godsend, or they came in and were able to extend the capabilities of the response, that means something to me,” Springer said. “And I hear that routinely now.”

Erica Gotcher, a medic on the mental health response team in Missoula, recalled a day recently when her team was wrapping up a call and received three new alerts: A man was considering suicide, a teen was spiraling into crisis and someone else needed follow-up mental health services. They knew the suicide risk call would take time as responders talked to the person by phone to get more details, so they responded to the teen hitting walls first and saw all three people before their shift was done.

Gotcher said being busy is a good sign that her team — and teams like it — are becoming just one more form of first response.

“Sometimes we roll up on a scene and there are three cop cars, an ambulance and a firetruck for one person who is having a panic attack,” Gotcher said. “One of the best things that we can do is briefly assess the situation and cancel all those other resources. They can go fight fires; they can go fight crime. We are the ones that need to be here.”

But gaps still exist, such as not always having somewhere to take a patient who needs a stable place to recuperate or get more help. The team’s shift also ends at 8 p.m., meaning, come nighttime, it’s back to police officers responding alone.

Need help?

If you or someone you know is in a crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.


This story can be republished for free (details).

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