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CT bill creates mental health peer-run respite centers

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Wednesday, April 3, 2024   

A Connecticut bill under consideration in the Legislature would establish peer-run respite centers to help people with mental illness.

Senate Bill 370 would establish eight centers, with three specific facilities for transgender, Spanish, and BIPOC communities. Unlike inpatient hospitalization, the programs are voluntary and allow a person to come and go.

Jordan Fairchild, executive director of the group Keep the Promise CT, said hospitalization can disrupt a person's life.

"If someone calls 988 and said the wrong thing or if they say the wrong thing to a provider, they can end up having the police show up at their door, be taken to the hospital against their will, be thrown in a locked ward, possibly forced on medication," Fairchild outlined.

She has heard of transgender people who've been hospitalized had hormone replacement therapy taken away, were called by their dead names and had to sit in groups with people who harassed them.

The bill garnered universal support during a public hearing last month but opponents questioned how the state will pay for the program. For now, the bill has been referred to the Office of Legislative Research and the Office of Fiscal Analysis.

Mindy Wallen, a certified recovery support specialist, came to Connecticut from Texas after her child, who has been hospitalized more than 20 times, came out as nonbinary. Wallen said even though hospitalizations helped develop a tool kit for her son to work on his mental health, there are lingering issues peer-respite centers can better address.

"You still have times when you might be dealing with like a recurrence of treatment-resistant depression, or, you know, like that sort of thing where there needs to be a kind of a more supportive environment, and a place to go just to kind of regroup and reset," Wallen explained.

Currently, 15 states operate peer-run respite centers, which have proven beneficial for more than just patients. A report from Washington State's Health Care Authority finds the centers can decrease the need for inpatient psychiatric care. It also noted the centers have lower costs than other facilities and have reduced Medicaid expenses.

While support for the bill is high, funding remains a challenge. Building and staffing these costs a little more than $8 million, less than 1% of the state's budget.

Matthew Blinstrubas, executive director of Equality Connecticut, said it is contradictory for such programs to hinge on money.

"This is a, for all intents and purposes, a cost-reducing measure," Blinstrubas pointed out. "It does require resources to get up and running. And so, that's where the conversation is now and we will know in the coming weeks where we stand in terms of what resourcing peer-respites will look like."

The centers are shown to cost less than more coercive options. The median cost of an inpatient psychiatric stay in Connecticut is more than $40,000, while a stay at a peer-run respite center in nearby Massachusetts costs around $3,200.


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