Dollars among counties to test mental health pilot program

By Brett Sholtis | WITF Transforming Health

The Bucks County Seal outside the Justice Center. Photo file.

Mental health agencies in Bucks, Dauphin, Carbon, Monroe and Pike counties are using new grants to test a program designed to help people living with serious mental illness and at risk of ending up in jail.

The five counties are the first to use a type of involuntary outpatient engagement called assisted outpatient treatment, which became a legal alternative to involuntary inpatient engagement in Pennsylvania in 2018.

Supporters of assisted outpatient treatment claim that some people with conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are unable or unwilling to follow treatment plans, in part because of a condition known as anosognosia that can cause them keep from understanding that they are sick.

They say these “AOT” programs help people stay on track while keeping them out of the criminal justice system. Each person is linked to a judge and a support team. Those who do not comply with the program do not face criminal charges.

Assisted outpatient treatment gives prosecutors a tool to help people who sometimes end up with criminal charges due to their illness, Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub said.

“Some people are clearly not in the criminal justice system, but they need some sort of judicial oversight because of their mental health issues, and I think that’s the missing link,” Weintraub said.

District Attorney Matt Weintraub speaking to reporters in December 2020.
Credit: Tom Sofield /

Weintraub said he would complement the new county mental health treatment court, which he requested following several reports on incidents involving people with serious illnesses last year. Transforming Health reported two of these incidents.

Bucks County got $ 360,000 through the Community Mental Health Services Block Grant to test the program, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.

That money will be used to hire a program coordinator and put in place more resources for about 35 people the county hopes to help over the coming year, said Donna Duffy-Bell, administrator of mental health and health programs. Bucks County drug and alcohol control. The county will likely start accepting people into the program in January.

Duffy-Bell noted that one of the reasons most counties have pulled out of AOT programs since they became legal in 2018 is because county officials feared it wouldn’t work without dedicated funding. This year, the state made such funding available through the federal block grants program for community mental health.

Donna Duffy-Bell of Bucks County.

Some county administrators are still concerned that the program “lacks teeth” because judges are unable to charge someone who does not comply with the program, Duffy-Bell said.

“And we wouldn’t want people to go to jail,” Duffy-Bell said. “But, you know, the idea is that just being involved in a formal process with a judge will help them.” She said the pilot programs will show if it works.

Dauphin County received $ 250,000 for its two-year pilot program. The county expects it will help around 25 people in the first two years, county spokesman Brett Hambright said. Funding will focus on the treatment and assessment of people who do not have adequate insurance.

“Although this is a pilot program, we see the potential of assisted outpatient treatment as another part of our overall efforts to treat mental illness,” said Hambright. “More specifically, we aim to deter individuals from committing criminal acts and being incarcerated by providing them with supportive structures and resources. “

All county mental health agencies are eligible for such funding through the Block Grants program, according to Pennsylvania Department of Human Services spokesperson Erin James.

This year, the state’s Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services secured additional funding through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 and the American Rescue Plan. The office distributed approximately $ 27.7 million to the counties.

“This federal funding meets the needs of adults with severe mental illness and children with severe emotional disorders in community settings,” said James.

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