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Pitkin County government and local law enforcement agencies are one hire away from full implementation of a diversion program designed to help people with mental-health issues, substance-abuse problems or both, and keep them from being jailed for low-level crimes.

The five-year program for Pitkin Area Co-responder Teams, or PACT, is being funded by a $362,500-per-year grant from the state Office of Behavioral Health. Pitkin County’s public health department is coordinating the initiative, which is serving as a pilot program for rural communities. The funding comes from state marijuana tax revenue.

The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and the Aspen and Snowmass Village police departments have signed on to participate. One of the program goals calls for law enforcement and mental-health specialists to respond jointly to incidents “in order to keep people with mental-health challenges from going into the justice system or the hospital unnecessarily,” said county public health director Karen Koenemann.

“It’s a diversion program to help people get the mental-health support that they need rather than going into the justice system for low-level crimes,” she said.

Even without the missing link — a “co-responder clinician” who will go out on calls with police — the program is well under way, Koenemann said. The state grant covers the cost of three positions, and two are already in place and working: a part-time peer specialist and a full-time case manager.

“We’ve been building up the team. There’s been a lot of planning over the last year,” she said.

In the official program arrangement, Pitkin County is a contractor, and Mindsprings Health, a nonprofit with 12 outpatient behavioral-health clinics throughout the Western Slope and a psychiatric hospital in Grand Junction, will function as a subcontractor, assisting the county with the effort. Specifically, Mindsprings is providing the three-person program team that will work from the office the nonprofit already has at the Pitkin County Health and Human Services Building near Aspen Valley Hospital.

“It’s not completely launched, but part of it has launched,” Koenemann said of the program, adding that local police officers and deputies have been referring individuals to the full-time case manager for follow-up assistance.

Such aid may include helping people get to doctor appointments, making sure they access their medications, navigating legal issues, enrolling them in economic-assistance programs, coordinating access to counseling and providing resources to loved ones, according to a PACT fact sheet provided by the Aspen Police Department.

The part-time peer specialist — someone who has overcome their own mental-health challenges — will be available at various times to meet people and serve as a role model and advocate, the fact sheet says.

The full-time co-responder clinician “works with officers and deputies on mental-health calls, and helps stabilize the situation and figure out a plan to help,” the fact sheet states.

Koenemann said there is great demand for clinicians with those types of skills. “We’re looking at filling the position as soon as possible,” she said. “There’s a personnel shortage in the mental-health field.”

In fact, a good fit for the position already has been identified and may be able to fill the role once the person has completed another job, she said.

Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor said the benefits to the community speak for themselves. First, law-enforcement agencies, the jail and the courts will get some relief if individuals are receiving help for their conditions rather than incarceration and other punitive measures, he said. Those who don’t get help often become repeat offenders and a longtime presence in Aspen’s courtrooms.

The program also may reduce the number of people who are brought to Aspen Valley Hospital’s emergency department for mental-health treatment, he said.

“Let’s say you’re helping someone gain access to their Social Security payments. That way, they can get cash to pay for their groceries instead of having to shoplift,” Pryor said.

He explained that the system for teaming the clinician with a police officer on calls will have to be examined over time to see what works best. “The position cannot be staffed 24 hours a day,” he said. Koenemann said weeknights tend to be a time when law enforcement fields the most mental-health calls.

“We’re trying to deal with the problem in a different way so that we’re not making these kinds of arrests all the time,” Pryor said. “We’re trying to get a longer term solution in place right when we go to the scene. That’s idealistically the hope, to get someone into a program where they can get case management, where someone will actually follow through with that person, whether they need housing, counseling, detox, whatever it is.”

Even though the program has yet to be fully implemented, Koenemann said she and others are already trying to determine how to keep it going after the five-year run comes to an end.

“We’re already looking at what will happen when that funding runs out. Hopefully after it ends, we can continue the program long-term,” she added.

No matching funds from the county were necessary to jumpstart the program.

Andre is a reporter for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at andre@aspendailynews.com.