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Dutch Ruppersberger: Funding for community projects in Baltimore and beyond will be lost if Congress passes ‘Band-Aid budget’ | GUEST COMMENTARY

When counselors working Baltimore’s crisis hotline answer the phone, they don’t always know what to expect. It could be an individual with a manic spouse. It could be a young man who has lost his job and is contemplating suicide or a nurse overcome with depression from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In these trying times of COVID-19, calls to the Here2Help hotline run by Baltimore Crisis Response Inc. have doubled, and the number of citizens threatening suicide has soared. Counselor Elijah McBride recently told The Baltimore Sun even his own family members have relied on the service during mental health crises.

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What counselors and other experts do know, though, is that most callers would be better served by a behavioral health professional rather than by law enforcement.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country, one in five adults in Baltimore suffered from a mental health disorder. One in 10 had a substance use disorder. The pandemic only made things worse, with mental health providers now struggling to find beds for patients.

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But the intensifying mental health crisis in cities like Baltimore is only one part of the challenge. The system that is used to respond — typically a 911 call and a response led by law enforcement — can exacerbate an already tense and stressful situation that has, at times, resulted in unnecessary force.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Baltimore police were called 12,000 times to respond to a person in a behavioral crisis. This places an undue burden on law enforcement officers — who are not trained or equipped to handle behavioral health crises — and diverts critical time and resources from their focus on real crime.

That is why, as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, I requested $2 million in federal funding to help divert non-urgent or low-risk 911 calls in Baltimore City to behavioral health crisis response teams such as the Here2Help crisis hotline. The money would help the city expand its 911 Diversion pilot program, launched in June, by diverting a wider range of calls, thus increasing the total number of diversions and reducing interactions between police and vulnerable citizens.

Such diversion programs have shown great promise in cities across the country, including Baltimore. Between the program’s launch in June and mid-October, Baltimore Crisis Response resolved nearly 300 of 452 incidents, saving 9,700 “unit minutes” from the Baltimore police and fire departments.

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Studies around the country have also shown that diversion programs not only reduce injuries and refocus police on crime, they save communities the much larger price tag of incarcerating individuals who would be better served through more cost-effective mental health treatment.

My request is among dozens of Community Project Funding requests (formerly known as “earmarks”) submitted by members of Maryland’s congressional delegation for worthy and carefully vetted projects throughout the state, from rail improvements to oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay. Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen also successfully requested funding for the City’s 911 Diversion Program in the appropriations bill in his respective chamber.

But none of these projects will receive a dime if Republican leadership moves forward with its plan to pass a full-year continuing resolution — or Band-Aid budget — that funds government at last year’s levels.

As a House Appropriator, I worked hard with my fellow committee members over the summer to write 12 spending bills that meet the needs of the American people. The Senate has released its versions of the same bills, and it’s time to begin negotiations between the two chambers. But Republican leadership is refusing to come to the bargaining table.

Instead, they want to operate under a continuing resolution that will deprive our families, small businesses and troops of the certainty they need during these uncertain times. Such a measure will hamstring our ability to invest in new priorities or, for that matter, cut what we no longer need. It will block historic investments in our schools, create a shortfall in veterans’ benefits and set back our military readiness.

I am urging my Republican colleagues to respond to our proposals with a reasonable offer that will enable us to begin the process of compromise and pass a bipartisan spending bill by year’s end. It’s not just an opportunity, but an obligation. Passing full-year spending bills will ensure our communities emerge stronger with investments in common-sense tools like a 911 diversion program that saves both lives and tax dollars.

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat, represents Maryland’s 2nd District. Twitter: @Call_Me_Dutch.

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