EUGENE, Ore. — Sen. Ron Wyden introduced a bill to the U.S. Congress on Wednesday hoping to encourage states to create crisis intervention teams, modeled after Eugene's CAHOOTS, to handle mental or behavioral health calls in place of law enforcement.
When Lane County emergency dispatchers identify non-violent incidents like mental health, substance abuse or other related crises, they can contact White Bird Clinic's Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets program. CAHOOTS will send a two-person team consisting of an unarmed medic and a trained crisis intervention worker.
According to Wyden, law enforcement officers are often not trained for these types of calls. Crisis intervention programs can save money and improve public safety. He believes it may be a solution as legislators reassess their law enforcement models.
"We're so proud of White Bird Clinic in Eugene and the work they've done with CAHOOTS. People all over the country are talking about this idea of really looking to unarmed mental health teams to intervene," said Wyden. "In Eugene, there has been great coordination and support from both mental health and law enforcement. It's one of the reasons I think it can be a natural model."
The CAHOOTS Act would utilize federal Medicaid dollars to encourage states to create crisis intervention programs. The federal government would pay for 95% of the program's costs, as well as offer $25 million in grants to either begin a program or expand one.
White Bird Clinic director of consulting Tim Black said the organization assisted Wyden's team in formulating this bill. He said that Medicaid funds are a perfect fit because crisis intervention teams can help drive down costs for the health care program.
According to Black, White Bird Clinic's services save up to $4.5 million in Medicaid costs yearly.
Additionally, he believes mobile crisis response can be an element of the safety net Medicaid is intended to be.
"I think it's a recognition of how much of what we are working on here is about public health. How much of the CAHOOTS response is addressing really profound and system-wide issues," said Black.
Black said that White Bird Clinic is currently consulting cities like Austin and Dallas in Texas, as well as multiple cities across California and other states that are interested in the model.
"We've had a lot of lessons we've learned over the last 31 years of doing this in Eugene and Springfield and we will certainly be bringing this to all of these other cities, but we need to hear from those communities," he said. "What is it that they need in a program like CAHOOTS? What is it they are trying to address?"
According to Wyden, the bill would also require states that get involved to connect those in crisis with services that can assist them long-term.
Wyden said the CAHOOTS Act will be referred to the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees Medicare. The committee, of which Wyden is a senior member, can eventually release it for a vote in Congress.
Representative Peter DeFazio on Friday introduced the U.S. House companion to Wyden's CAHOOTS ACT bill.
“As our country continues to explore ways to reduce police brutality and adequately address mental health and substance use disorder crises, we must invest more in proven models that prioritize effective, trauma-informed care through robust health care and social services rather than immediately involving law enforcement," DeFazio said. "Investment in programs like CAHOOTS could alleviate the significant burden on local police."