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Ore. crisis-intervention program stays alive with funding from state Medicaid provider

Portland’s Community Health Assess and Treat program was on the verge of having its funding diverted to the FD


Photo/Dave Killen/Tribune News Service

By Shane Dixon Kavanaugh

PORTLAND, Ore. — A Portland Fire & Rescue program that threatened to draw money away from Portland Street Response, the city’s non-police crisis intervention team housed within the bureau, is unlikely to do so in the coming year because it’s set to receive a new round of funding from the state’s largest Medicaid provider.

Commissioner Rene Gonzalez received a “verbal agreement” this week from CareOregon that the provider would bankroll the bureau’s Community Health Assess and Treat — or CHAT — program for at least another year, his office told The Oregonian/OregonLive on Friday.

That means more funding security for the fledgling Street Response program, which sends mental health workers and EMTs in lieu of armed officers to crises among people living on the street.

Last month, Interim Fire Chief Ryan Gillespie told The Oregonian/OregonLive he would not rule out diverting dollars from Portland Street Response to help keep Community Health Assess and Treat afloat, should the latter program fail to secure additional outside funding.

CHAT sends pairs of fire medics — rather than firefighters and their engines — to help certain Portland residents who are known to be huge users of 911 and emergency room visits.

CareOregon has funded the initiative since its creation in 2021 as an effort reduce the strain that these low-risk but frequent medical callers historically placed on hospitals and Portland’s understaffed Fire Bureau.

The state Medicaid provider has given just under $5 million to Community Health Assess and Treat thus far.

However, grant money for the program was scheduled to run out in September, raising questions about how or whether it could continue. Gonzalez, who assumed control of the bureau when he took office in January, learned about the looming fiscal cliff only this spring, he and his staff have said.

“We are happy to continue to partner with the city as it works to sustain this program in the future,” Jeremiah Rigsby, chief of staff to CareOregon CEO Eric C. Hunter, told The Oregonian/OregonLive on Friday.

The funding extension was first reported Thursday by Willamette Week.

Years of surging overtime spending by the Fire Bureau to fulfill minimum staffing requirements for firehouses citywide has led to budget belt-tightening and left little money for initiatives outside the bureau’s core mission, fire leaders have insisted.

The prospect of possibly diverting money from Portland Street Response to prop up the CHAT program helped fuel fears that Gonzalez and fire officials might dramatically reshape or downsize the Street Response program.

Earlier this year, Street Response team members were barred from distributing tents to people experiencing homelessness and directed to help with city-ordered sweeps. The program’s longtime manager, Robyn Burek, announced her departure last month.

Gonzalez and Gillespie have both said they support Portland Street Response and are committed to its long-term stability.

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