Benton County continues to negotiate to buy the former Kennewick General Hospital to use as a behavioral health crisis recovery center. Mobile Crisis Response Teams would work out of the recovery center.

Mobile Crisis Response Teams could relieve police, fire, and emergency management services (EMS) personnel from responding to around 3,000 calls a year that don’t pose an imminent threat to lives or property, according to Deputy Benton County Administrator Matthew Rasmussen.

Rasmussen described the plans for the program, funded from the new sales tax of one cent on every 10 dollars approved in November by the Benton County Commission, to the Richland City Council on March 15. The tax will take effect July 1.

The two-member teams usually consists of a clinician-level responder and a peer. They respond to people in behavioral health crisis in lieu of sending police, fire or EMS.

“What we see is that 60 to 70 percent of the calls they [the crisis teams] go to can be resolved on the street or in their home without ever needing a transport from anywhere,” Rasmussen told the council.

A bi-county meeting a few weeks ago discussed the creation of a Behavioral Health Advisory Committee, according to Rasmussen.

“We really want a community driven program,” Rasmussen said. 

He described a committee comprised of people in recovery from long-term mental illness, mental health experts, and representatives from law enforcement, fire departments, emergency medical services and hospitals.

Rasmussen said that they were actively seeking members and planned to be set up before a recovery center opens in the region. Once the center opens, the teams would operate out of the center and supplement services.

“The sales tax cannot be used for capital outlays,” Rasmussen emphasized.  Funding for creation of the recovery center – which can’t be done with sales tax money – is halfway to its $20 million goal via county, state and federal funding, Rasmussen said. The county is actively negotiating with LifePoint Health, the owners of the old Kennewick General Hospital, to buy the 180,000 sq. ft. facility to be remodeled into a behavioral health crisis recovery center.

The center’s previous purpose – a birthing and women’s health center – ended once Trios moved its functions to its main Southridge campus.

Only about 50,000 sq. ft. of the former hospital would be used for the 50-bed facility, leaving the rest available for transitional or perhaps low-cost housing or other services, Rasmussen told the council.

“We definitely want partnerships across the region, not only within Benton and Franklin counties, but surrounding counties as well, because we get people from those areas here to get services,” Rasmussen said.

Councilmember Jhoanna Jones, whose husband is a Pasco police officer, asked how the proposed crisis teams would work with the mental health professionals who currently ride with police officers to some calls.

Rasmussen explained that the crisis teams would be separate from the ride-along program which will be phased out after a transition period, “ … people respond better if they’re not confronted by someone in a uniform in a car with sirens and lights on it.” 

He said there would be coordination with police and fire in case the situation escalated.