The Oregon Health Authority aims to bolster mobile medical units to help people in a mental health crisis. (Oregon Health Authority)

The Oregon Health Authority plans on bolstering mobile units of trained mental health professionals around the state to care for people when they’re in a mental health crisis.

The plan is part of the country’s move next year to a new federal suicide prevention phone line to take the burden off 9-1-1 operators.  

“This could drive down the number of calls that police are needing to respond to,” according to David Westbrook, chief operating officer of Lines for Life, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention. He said Oregon will need to set up new call centers and ensure they’re connected to 9-1-1 to allow operators to transfer mental health calls to 9-8-8. 

Under the new system, police would respond to emergency calls but not mental health crises.

“There’s a real hope that we can use this to drive down those interactions that have been dangerous between certain marginalized communities and the police,” Westbrook said.

Oregon intends to get the new system going with the help of federal funds. In August, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved a one-year grant for Oregon of nearly $1 million to get the new system organized. To receive the money, the health authority needs legislative approval. 

On Monday, a subcommittee of the Joint Interim Ways and Means Committee agreed to move the request to the full committee for approval. 

Steve Allen, the health authority’s behavioral health director, said Oregon was one of 20 states to receive the funding. 

“Oregon got the largest award of all the states that got an award,” Allen told the subcommittee. “We have a lot of work to do to get ready for 9-8-8.”

Right now Oregon’s mobile crisis services are uneven around the state, according to a report to the legislative committee. They do not include community outreach, on-call providers, a crisis workforce or preventive follow-up, the report said.

“Mobile crisis services are already a covered service under Oregon’s Medicaid program,” the health authority said in a separate report. “However the services are not utilized to their fullest extent due to limitations in how those services are staffed, structured and reimbursed.”

States that receive the federal money have to offer around-the-clock services staffed by multidisciplinary teams of at least two professionals, including one who’s specialized in behavioral health issues. The health authority said it intends to use the grant to hire a program director and a coordinator for 12 months and train behavioral health providers on giving mental health first aid and offering culturally and linguistically appropriate services, among other things.


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