The mental health region encompassing Dubuque, Delaware and Jones counties is seeking a new location for a local center for the treatment of mental illnesses and substance abuse issues.

Officials with Mental Health/Disability Services of the East Central Region hope to create a Dubuque access center after they were authorized by lawmakers last year.

Local stakeholders initially sought approval to start a center at Hillcrest Family Services’ campus on Seippel Road. However, that site has been ruled out, as the Iowa Department of Human Services since began to clarify broad rules for these centers.

“It would be ideal to be with a Hillcrest building, but the regulations continue to trip us up,” Dubuque County Supervisor Ann McDonough said during a stakeholders meeting this week at MercyOne Dubuque Medical Center.

Access centers can have no more than 16 beds and must be open 24/7. The Seippel Road location would be attached to a residential facility with too many beds.

Local leaders are struggling to find another space.

“Dubuque is not a 24/7 type of place, other than in health care and in law enforcement,” McDonough said.

Among the most disappointed about the delayed access center timeline was Dubuque County Sheriff Joe Kennedy.

“Since (state mental health hospitals) closed, we’ve become the dumping ground for mentally ill people,” he said of the Dubuque County Jail.

The access center would provide an alternate destination for people who “act out” on the streets in mental health crises, as well as the publicly intoxicated, he said. Instead of being arrested, they would get treatment there.

Inmates in mental health crises deemed dangerous are placed in solitary confinement, which often exacerbates the issues. Jail medical staff are not mental health experts, Kennedy said, and inmates can only be taken to the hospital with a court order.

Others in the room pointed out crisis resources for inmates available in other counties.

In Delaware County, a mobile crisis center visits the jail. Some jails use remote telepsychiatry services.

“That would be a game-changer,” said Teena Williams, community treatment coordinator for the First Judicial District Department of Correctional Services.

She said inmates with conditions like schizophrenia would be able to get prescriptions remotely, instead of jumping through hoops to get to the hospital.

Kennedy said sheriff’s department officials have discussed telepsychiatry before. However, they encountered in their contract with their current health care provider a barrier to pursuing that service.

He said if a mobile crisis center were to visit the Dubuque County Jail, it would be there constantly. A deputy would have to supervise counseling meetings, taking staff eyes away from other inmates.

Peggy Petlon, community coordinator for the region, said she and Kennedy will continue discussing how to better serve the jail.

“We’re more than willing to look into it,” Kennedy said.

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