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Mel Trotter program helps taxpayers save

September 8, 2017

By Jesse O'Brien

About 15 years ago, Mel Trotter Ministries began its public inebriate shelter program.

The shelter, launched in 2002, is the result of years of discussions between city leaders, medical professionals and law enforcement regarding how to best handle the problems caused by public inebriation, specifically among the city’s homeless population.

At the time, there were really only two ways of handling cases of public inebriation. They could take the individual to the emergency room, where they would leave with a $1,000 or $1,500 bill that would never be paid. Or they go to jail overnight, costing about $1,000 in processing services.

The solution? Start a public inebriation shelter, housed at one of the local nonprofits that would be able to take in and care for people who were found to be too inebriated to be out on the streets, where they could be a danger to themselves or others. Now, 15 years later, Mel Trotter Ministries’ public inebriation shelter has saved the system millions of dollars by providing crucial services.

Funded by grants from the three major hospital systems — Spectrum Health, Mercy Health St. Mary’s and Metro Health — and Network180, the shelter accommodates 11 beds that provide a diversion from the hospital or prison systems. The $250,000 the shelter receives helps to pay the salaries of five nurses to staff the shelter, while Mel Trotter covers their benefits.

“It’s a beautiful system — give me one other example in this town where all three hospitals are working together for the same goal,” Mel Trotter President and CEO Dennis Van Kampen said.

The shelter serves as a place where someone who is intoxicated can be delivered by an EMT, police officer, good Samaritan or come in themselves to rest and let the effects of whatever substance they took wear off. After passing a medical assessment administered by one of the on-staff nurses, the patients are provided with a bed, a meal, shower and fresh clothes and upon sobering up, counseling with the nurses to help them find a path to recovery.

In 2016, Mel Trotter hosted 4,106 visits to the public inebriation center, saving the community just more than $4.1 million, averaging the cost of about $1,000 per ER visit. To date this year, the shelter has received 2,808 visits, about $2.8 million in savings.

Those savings include costs that would be incurred by health insurers, hospitals and jails, Van Kampen said.

“It’s definitely about $2 million to $3 million a year that we’re saving the system and, ultimately, the taxpayer,” Van Kampen said.

Van Kampen said that about four years ago, the shelter was able to expand its hours to be open 24/7 thanks to an increase in funding.

While Van Kampen said the shelter’s success has been studied and explored by other municipalities, Mel Trotter is unique in that it has supported its operations for the past 15 years. The shelter has two key advantages — the first being the funding from the region’s three main health systems and the second a unique protocol in Kent County that allows paramedics to medically clear a patient in the field and bring them to the shelter rather than the hospital.

“Typically, you are not allowed to do that, but the state has approved protocols in Kent County that allows them to clear a patient in the street to bring to our shelter,” Van Kampen said.

While the savings are quantifiable, Van Kampen said it’s impossible to measure the amount of lives saved by getting people off the streets and into shelter when they are at their most vulnerable. He said in the past two years, almost 40 “super-utilizers” — individuals who were regulars at the public inebriation shelter, up to six or seven times a week — entered into detox programs. Of those 40, 19 of them have not returned to the public inebriation shelter.

“At the shelter, it’s all about those relationships, and when we can build those relationships, we can affect change,” Van Kampen said.

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