Baraga County launches virtual crisis care program

Photo provided by Baraga County Memorial Hospital A photo demonstrates the use of Virtual Crisis Care, a new system being used by Baraga County law enforcement to connect people undergoing crises to behavioral health professionals through telemedicine.

L’ANSE — Baraga County law enforcement officers will have on-demand access to behavioral health professionals when responding to mental health calls thanks to a new partnership.

Baraga County Memorial Hospital and Baraga County Sheriff’s Department held a press conference Monday to announce the launch of Virtual Crisis Care, a co-responder model using telemedicine to connect people having a mental health crisis to health professions.

The program is being delivered by Avel eCare, a national telemedicine provider that has had a partnership with BCMH for the past year. BCMH is providing support for the effort, which is being funded through the Copper Shores Community Health Foundation and the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

“We’re proud to sponsor this program that will reduce the potential for harm, minimize arrests, and improve outcomes for individuals with behavioral health needs — leading to a safer, healthier community,” Kevin Store, President/CEO of Copper Shores Community Health Foundation, said in a release announcing the program.

The hospital has been using Avel’s services in its emergency department for behavioral health screening. Avel representatives brought up their crisis care program to hospital staff while making a site visit, BCMH CEO Rob Stowe said in an interview Monday.

He had a couple meetings with Baraga County Sheriff Joe Brogan to discuss the program. Brogan then reached out to the other law enforcement groups in the county, who were enthusiastic about participating, Stowe said. It’s Avel’s first crisis care program in the country to cover an entire community, Stowe said.

“I think primarily they agree that it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “They just think that if they were in the shoes of the person they’re responding to, they were the person experiencing that crisis, they understand it’s better community policing, all in all.”

An officer responding to a mental health call can use a tablet or smartphone to connect with Avel staff to screen people undergoing a crisis.

Avel said the typical situation takes about 45 minutes to resolve, Stowe said. When he brought that to law enforcement, he was expecting disapproval of the time commitment. Instead, they laughed. Under the current system, where a person would be apprehended and either taken to the jail or the hospital, the officer could be tied up for six to eight hours, Stowe said.

“I think the biggest part was getting them all in the same room to hear what the program is, what the benefits are, how it works,” he said. “To an officer in the room, they all left agreeing to do it.”

In addition to the sheriff’s department, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community Tribal Police Department, Village of L’Anse Police Department, Baraga Police Department and Michigan State Police Calumet Post are also participating.

“The Baraga County Sheriff’s Office, in partnership with local police departments, recognizes the increase of mental health-related incidents and acknowledges the critical importance of providing appropriate support to individuals experiencing behavioral health crises,” Brogan said in a release. “The implementation of Avel eCare will equip our deputies and officers with a powerful tool to help de-escalate tense situations and ensure those in crisis have the best care and support possible.”

Avel has been providing virtual crisis care to law enforcement agencies in 40 counties in South Dakota and parts of Nevada. Avel cited a study recently published in JMIR Mental Health showing that 80% of law enforcement encounters utilizing the program ended with the person undergoing crisis being able to stay in place.

Officers underwent training on the program last week. Its first live trial should happen sometime in the coming weeks, Stowe said.

Results from the program will be shared with departments in other counties, Stowe said.

“In our discussions with Copper Shores Community Health Foundation, they’re excited to understand how effective this program is, so we’ve got some key data points we’ll be tracking,” Stowe said. “There’s hope that if this trial goes well, there’s potential of expanding it to even more counties.”


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