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Washington — Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow has partnered with Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt to expand a pilot program that funds mental health services in community health clinics.

The pair wants to reauthorize the initiative and expand it to 19 states, giving the eight states currently participating two years of additional funding through Medicaid.

"Our goal was to have a system where mental health and addiction services are treated from a funding standpoint as comprehensive health care: Treating health care above the neck, as well as health care below the neck," said Stabenow, D-Lansing. 

The senators said they hope data gathered from participating communities will prove to governors and states that they actually save money by integrating health care, mental health and addiction services. 

"Our effort here is not to have the federal government take over behavioral health," Blunt said. 

"Our goal is to to put together enough information, so it becomes obvious that not only is this the right thing to do ... it is actually the smart thing to do, the financially cost-effective thing to do. 

"The police and the emergency room should not have become the de facto mental health delivery system in this country," he added. 

"What we're trying to show here is that when you deal with people's mental health challenges like you would any other health challenge, their other health issues are so much more easily dealt with." 

The new legislation builds on Stabenow and Blunt's 2014 law that created the Certified Community Behavioral Health Center pilot program for eight states, authorized at $1 billion — though it hasn't cost that much, lawmakers said.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that, in the program's first year, 400,000 people received help and treatment — 20 percent of whom had never been able to get help or treatment before because services weren't available, Stabenow said.

Michigan was not selected for the initial pilot program but, under the proposed expansion, would have the chance to apply for funding for additional clinics and more comprehensive services across the state.  

Community officials who joined lawmakers at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday recounted stories about mentally ill individuals who were referred to a psychiatric treatment facility as a result of the pilot program.

U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Oklahoma, said one county in his district had 1,115 people incarcerated before the pilot program was established there. 

"Last year, there were 17," said Mullin, who has co-sponsored the legislation in the House with Rep. Doris Matsui, D-California. 

Funding for the program in Oklahoma and Oregon expires March 31 and for the six other states in June. 

"Guys, we can't afford to let that happen," Mullin said. 

He introduced Assistant Police Chief James Willyard from the town of Pryor Creek in Oklahoma, who said it used to take his officers anywhere from eight to 12 hours to handle a call from someone that was experiencing a mental health crisis. 

"Our department was overwhelmed with the mental health crisis," Willyard said. 

Since the community has joined the pilot program, an officer takes an iPad with them to the scene and lets the individual speak directly to a clinician before transporting them to a treatment facility. That officer is back on the street within 30 minutes, Willyard said.  

He credited the program with saving his department "thousands of dollars and thousands of man hours." 

The senators said the Congressional Budget Office is still assessing what their new legislation, the Excellence in Mental Health and Addiction Treatment Expansion Act, would cost. 

mburke@detroitnews.com

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