Federal Support Can Seed Big Improvements in Mobile Response
By Whitney Bunts & Carlean Ponder
At the end of December 2021, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released guidance on the structure and implementation process for community-based mobile crisis intervention services, which respond to mental health crises. The guidance is an excellent rubric for states to follow when beginning to implement safe, accessible, equitable, and police-free mobile response services in anticipation of the launch in July 2022 of 988, the national suicide and mental health crisis number.
The CMS guidance is a product of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). As part of ARPA, Congress created an 85 percent Federal Medicaid Assistance Percentage (FMAP) for mobile response services. This means that the federal government will cover 85 percent of the cost of states’ mobile response services, with the states responsible for the remaining 15 percent. The FMAP funding is a 3- year federal match that will start in April 2022 and can be used within a 5-year time span. Additionally, ARPA awarded $15 million in planning grants to help 20 states build a mobile response infrastructure.
The guidance outlines best practices and specifies allowable uses for mobile response services interventions, such as:
- Encouraging staffing structures that don’t rely on law enforcement,
- Adding peer and family support specialists as part of mobile response teams,
- Ensuring mobile response covers people with substance use disorders,
- Recommending partnerships with community-based organizations, pediatricians, and schools, and
- Providing an enhanced administrative match for some Medicaid agency costs if they implement text and chat mental health services.
The full text of the guidance provides many additional details and best practices, but the five listed above will be especially beneficial to the implementation and development of youth mobile response services. The combination of community crisis care, the expansion of mobile crisis services, and the implementation of 988 will be key strategies for advancing the safety of youth, especially among youth with disabilities, as part of a holistic approach to behavioral challenges in school settings. Studies have consistently shown that students with disabilities, particularly Black students with disabilities, are disproportionately disciplined for demonstrating behaviors described as “challenging.”
According to a 2018 Government Accountability Office report, Black students accounted for 15.5 percent of all public school students but represented 39 percent of those suspended from school. Law enforcement involvement also disproportionately affects students with disabilities, especially Black students. According to data from the U.S. Dept of Education, during the 2015-2016 school year, students with disabilities represented 12 percent of the overall student enrollment and 28 percent of students referred to law enforcement or arrested. Additionally, the 2015-16 data showed Black students represented 15 percent of the total student enrollment, and 31 percent of students who were referred to law enforcement or arrested – a 16 percentage point disparity.
In one incident captured by a viral video, police were called to apprehend an upset 5-year-old Black child who left school premises. Officers placed the child in handcuffs, returned him to the school, and berated him for crying and kicking. These types of interactions between students and the police are common, and they often leave youth traumatized and distrustful. The CMS guidance, if robustly implemented by localities and with an emphasis on developing school partnerships, can help deter harmful punitive actions and provide an alternative to law enforcement referrals.
As the federal government and states work together to support new crisis services such as the 988 national mental health crisis hotline, mobile crisis units, and respite centers, it is critical to implement these best practices in a manner that does not replicate carceral systems. While the goal is to eliminate law enforcement involvement with youth in a mental health crisis, we do not want to shuttle youth from one carceral system (detention/court involvement) to another, such as forced treatment in mental health facilities. As communities plan their crisis response systems, it is vital that stakeholders, including state and local agencies, ensure youth and youth with disabilities are included in all conversations.
Overall, this guidance is a big win in the crisis and 988 advocacy community. But local, state, and federal policymakers, agency officials, and program leaders need to do more to explicitly address the mental health crisis of young people and other special populations. Locally, schools need to collaborate and partner with mobile response teams to better meet the needs of youth, particularly Black and brown youth, and youth with disabilities. State legislators and officials must recommend that their state departments of education use funding from ARPA to support and sustain mobile response teams in schools. Federally, Congress should prioritize police-free mobile response services for youth through the FY22 and FY23 budgets.
Whitney Bunts is a policy analyst on the Youth Policy team at CLASP. Carlean Ponder is the Director of Disability Rights and Housing Policy at The Arc and she is a part of CLASP’s Youth Mobile Response Working Group.