A bill to establish a specialized team responding to incidents with persons displaying mental illness drew scrutiny and concern at a Wednesday Senate hearing. Some members of the 35th Legislature Committee on Health, Hospitals and Human Services questioned a proposal to set up a psychiatric crisis intervention team and a trust fund to ensure its perpetuity.
Bill No. 35-0224 seeks to amend Title 19 of the Virgin Islands Code to create a Psychological Emergency Response Team (PERT). If passed and made law, the measure would also support a 9-8-8 emergency hotline with defined revenue streams.
As Wednesday’s hearing began, Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion announced the specialized hotline had been activated and was in operation. She promoted the emergency response bill as one designed to increase access to behavioral health services.
Health Committee Chairman Ray Fonseca said he also dialed the 9-8-8 line and discovered it was up and running.
The 9-8-8 mental health crisis line is an idea that’s being adopted nationwide. Bill No. 35-0224 stipulates that crisis calls made in the V.I. would be answered by trained local personnel.
Testifiers voicing their support for the bill included UVI President David Hall and Fire and Emergency Services Assistant Director Lisle Evelyn. Police Commissioner Ray Martinez expressed his support in a submitted written statement.
“We support this bill,” Evelyn said. “By having these wraparound services available, pre-hospital, give patients the opportunity to have the best possible care.”
Hall suggested the 9-8-8 hotline could be most effective if call center representatives spoke the languages heard in the V.I. and were culturally sensitive.
But committee members — some of whom had worked on behavioral health intervention measures before — said they were frustrated about a perceived lack of action following those actions.
“We don’t lack conversation; we lack action on issues regarding behavioral health,” said Sen. Novelle Francis. Francis — now Senate President — was instrumental in crafting major legislation in 2022 to address behavioral health care needs territory-wide.
Francis said he was especially concerned for elderly residents who live in fear because they share their homes with relatives experiencing behavioral and mental health challenges. Deputy Health Commissioner Renan Steele assured Francis some of the provisions in the 2022 bill had been put into practice.
The bill was held in committee at the call of the chair.
Senators present at Wednesday’s committee hearing included Ray Fonseca, Diane T. Capehart, Novelle E. Francis Jr., Donna A. Frett-Gregory, Marise C. James, and Milton E. Potter.