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Right Help, Right Now program exceeds expectations, committee learns

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(The Center Square) — In the first meeting of the Senate Education and Health Committee for the 2024 legislative session, Secretary of Health and Human Resources John Littel spoke to the committee, reviewing the department’s current priorities and progress.

A little over a year into the governor’s Right Help, Right Now plan, designed to help address the national mental health crisis as it has manifested in the commonwealth, the program has exceeded expectations in some areas.

“We started this journey aspiring to ensure that Virginians in crisis have someone to call, someone to respond and somewhere to go,” Littel said.

The program has six pillars: “offer[ing] same-day care for behavioral health crises.” This is done in part through Virginia’s 988 Suicide and Crisis Hotline. The line received over 8,300 calls in November alone, up from less than 6,000 a year ago.

“We are tops in the nation at answering those calls quickly,” Littel told the committee, citing an earlier study that showed that Virginia’s average 988 answer time was under 25 seconds, about 10 seconds faster than the national average.

Another component of the program’s first pillar is the assembly of mobile crisis units. A year ago, only 36 publicly-funded mobile crisis units were in Virginia.

“We estimated that a minimum of 70 were needed to ensure that a team was no more than an hour from every Virgininan. Today, we are at 97 mobile crisis units that are funded, and our revised goal is 140 fully-staffed teams,” Littel said.

The department also recently announced funding for eight new emergency-room-alternative crisis receiving centers, far exceeding the two it had hoped to fund.

The Right Help, Right Now program is also designed to help alleviate some of the challenges law enforcement faces with the mental health crisis. Often, there is no one else to handle individuals in crisis, placing an additional burden on law enforcement when needed to contain and prevent crime.

Committee member Sen. Christie New Craig, R-Chesapeake, posed the question to Littel: “What is Right Help, Right Now doing to reduce the burden on temporary detentions?”

“The answer is a lot, and not as much as we need right now,” Littel responded. The state had previously contracted with an alternative transportation provider (an alternative to law enforcement) that wasn’t meeting the program’s needs.

“We renegotiated that contract and actually have a pilot right now to ensure that we can take more difficult patients, which only law enforcement had previously been able to do. That’s an area that we continue to work on,” Littel said.

Though legislation has also been created that seeks to make improvements to the response time and functionality of alternative transportation, Littel noted that law enforcement will always play a role in managing the mental health crisis, at least when it comes to individuals who pose a significant risk to themselves and others.

However, he also pointed out that mobile crisis units and crisis-receiving centers help reduce the burden on law enforcement because they provide people and places to which law enforcement can transfer custody of the individual.

Committee member Sen. Lachrecse Aird also asked about statistics with the 988 hotline.

“I was hoping you can tell whether the use of the number is widespread… as well as if you’re seeing any duplication in those calls. Volume is good, but I’m trying to assess the success of the referrals when someone calls in,” Aird said.

“Right now, we’re not far enough along to do a really thorough assessment,” Littel said. “Are our education efforts sufficient? I think we have a lot more to do still on that. I think we’ll continue to update you all on that.”

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