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No Respite 

North Idaho officials are disappointed after losing their bid for a crisis center

click to enlarge Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger lobbied for a crisis center in Coeur d'Alene.
  • Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger lobbied for a crisis center in Coeur d'Alene.

In late May, it seemed their best, and only, chance for relief. North Idaho law enforcement and health care officials prayed that a proposed mental health crisis center in Coeur d'Alene could take on the increasing number of mentally ill patients now filling emergency rooms and tying up patrol officers.

Multiple police agencies report mental health calls taking a larger toll, pulling officers off the street for hours on end as they escort patients to treatment facilities — sometimes to out-of-county psych wards, undermining emergency staffing and overtime budgets.

Claudia Miewald, director of the Kootenai Behavioral Health Center, cited more than 700 admittances for involuntary mental health patients in the past 12 months, a growing number that sometimes forces the hospital to rearrange rooms to fit extra beds. Staff spent at least 4,000 hours sitting with patients awaiting treatment.

"You can see how that would be a stressor," she says.

But Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter announced last week that Coeur d'Alene would not get a crisis center this year. Legislators had approved funding for just one of three proposed centers, and state officials had prioritized Idaho Falls. While Otter initially asked for funding for all three centers, he praised lawmakers last week for approving a test facility before committing to other crisis centers.

"In the legislature's wisdom ... " Otter told a news conference in Idaho Falls, "they said, 'Well, let's put one together first, and then learn from that nuclear seed.'"

The Idaho center would operate based on a program in Billings, Montana, that provides people with a voluntary assessment, crisis counseling, overnight accommodations, food and follow-up treatment planning to help avoid future episodes. Billings officials say the center has dramatically reduced ER visits and jail bookings.

Local officials believe it was a split in support from Coeur d'Alene legislators that undermined their bid. Several local representatives voted against the funding, calling it an unnecessary government expense. But others expressed disappointment with the missed opportunity to establish a local center.

Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger had helped organized law enforcement support for the center, compiling letters from regional police chiefs facing the same challenges with the growing number of mental health calls and resource shortages. He hopes officials might reconsider funding additional centers next year.

"There's just not the support from our local legislators," he says, adding, "For those of us who deal with people in crisis on a daily basis, it's a pretty big disappointment." ♦

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