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How a new governor, J.B. Pritzker, can go to bat for the mentally ill right away

For lack of better alternatives, write the authors, police often detain and jail people suffering a mental health crisis. As an alternative to beds in jails, as seen in this photograph, Illinois should create crisis stabilization centers, which are like emergency rooms for the mentally ill.

In his first few weeks as governor, J.B. Pritzker will have to take a swing at a lot of tough pitches, but one important issue looks to us like an easy fastball over the middle of the plate.

He should hit it hard and far right away.

We urge Gov.-elect Pritzker to take the lead in creating a network of crisis stabilization units in lllinois, which basically are emergency rooms for people in the throes of a mental health breakdown.

OPINION

Patients are seen quickly by mental health professionals and stay for a short while, perhaps a day or two, for observation. Some then move on to more acute mental health care settings, but many more — having gotten back on their proper medications and re-connected with a treatment program — require no further inpatient care.

Crisis stabilization units are an enormously important resource not only for people suffering a mental health crisis, but for the police. When working with the mentally ill, as the police do daily, crisis stabilization units provide them a more effective, humane and less expensive option to overcrowded hospital emergency rooms or jail.

There is widespread bipartisan agreement that the criminal justice system in Illinois is overcrowded, ineffective and unaffordable. A major cause of this dysfunction, as Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and others often points out, is the lack of alternatives to incarceration for those struggling with mental illness.

Over time, creating a network of crisis stabilization units in Illinois could lead to a dramatic reduction in the jail and prison populations. When Miami Dade County created just such a system, the jail population count decreased by a third. The county saved tens of millions of dollars by doing the right thing.

In addition to offering those with mental illness the right treatment in the most appropriate setting, crisis stabilization units relieve the pressure on local hospitals, whose emergency rooms are equipped to address acute medical needs, but not urgent mental health conditions.

The same would be true of jails and prisons. The current state of overcrowding – Illinois prisons now operate at 150 percent of their designed capacity – would end. Both prison staff and prison occupants would be able to function more effectively.

Gov.-elect Pritzker won’t have to come up with a fancy new bat or develop a new swing. He just has to talk to people in states that already have established crisis stabilization units to learn what remarkable good can be accomplished. We would urge him to call Judge Steven Leifman in Miami-Dade County. Or call Leon Evans, who heads the Center for Health Care Services in San Antonio, Texas. Leifman and Evans are pioneers in the creation of effective crisis stabilization units, the Babe Ruth and Ernie Banks in their field.

What stands in the way of this improvement in Illinois? As always, it’s money.

Hospitals are eager to create crisis stabilization units. In fact, at least one already has, but can’t operate it because the reimbursement rate has been slashed. It costs about $800 for eight hours of observation and treatment in a typical crisis stabilization unit. That’s what the state reimbursement rate once was. Today, the rate is $65, which means that no hospital can provide this service without going broke.

We in the Illinois Metro Industrial Areas Foundation are calling on Pritzker to champion and help hospitals franchise a new generation of crisis stabilization units in our state. They work. They’ve proven effective in other states. They relieve emergency rooms and prisons of the unbearable pressure of overcrowding. And they give those with mental illness the care they desperately need.

Here comes the pitch, Governor, soft and slow and right over the heart of the plate. All you have to do is take a good, hard swing.

Richard Townsell of United Power for Action and Justice, Aliya Husain of DuPage United, Kelly Collins of Fox River Valley Initiative and Rabbi Ari Margolis of Lake County United are leaders with Illinois Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, a network of 90 religious and civic institutions in four counties.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.