Santa Cruz County gets $20.8 million to help homeless, mentally ill

SANTA CRUZ >> Santa Cruz County got good news Tuesday in the long-running effort to help people who have a mental illness, who are homeless and are frequently in hospital emergency rooms.

The county’s Health Services Agency has been awarded $20.8 million by the state for an innovative techdriven approach to help 1,000 such individuals avoid costly hospitalization and improve their lifespan.

On Tuesday, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors accepted the funds for “Cruz to Health —Data Connect” and applauded Giang Nguyen, Health Services Agency director, and her staff for figuring out how to come up with the needed 50 percent local match.

Cruz to Health will run through 2020, one of several “Whole Person Care” pilot projects in California to see if changes can produce better health outcomes.

“It’s exciting to see it’s going to serve 1,000 people,” said Supervisor John Leopold.

Dr. Arnold Leff, county health officer, sees the pilot project as a way to help people participating in the county’s Syringe Services Program. In the last year, that program served 789 people, providing 339,000 clean syringes and collecting 332,000 used syringes as a way to prevent diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B from spreading.

Cruz to Health — Data Connect will provide peer support and tablet computers to people covered by MediCal with mental illness, repeated hospital admissions and experiencing homelessness. Additional criteria include having chronic health conditions and taking five medications such as blood thinners to prevent heart attacks and drugs for bipolar disorder, depression, diabetes, hypertension, asthma and epilepsy.

The tablets will remind participants to take their blood pressure and weigh themselves on a scale with measurements automatically sent to a nurse who monitors the data and prioritizes an in-person visits.

The tablets will ask questions such as “How did you sleep last night?” and be used for conference calls with health staff. This type of tablet-driven healthcare used elsewhere got positive results, according to Erik Riera, the county’s director of mental health and substance abuse services.

Participants will be offered membership in a food co-op and a gym as incentives to provide the data on their health.

To launch July 1, the county will hire 14 staffers, with needs for mental health client specialists and IT specialists and one position in the probation department, Nguyen said.

She expects to contract with nonprofit partners for 13.5 positions. Some 20 nonprofits are in support, including Central California Alliance for Health, Dignity Dominican Hospital, Watsonville Community Hospital and Janus of Santa Cruz and National Alliance on Mental Illness Santa Cruz County.

The county matching funds will come from a grant, the Santa Cruz Health Information Exchange and “re-engineering services,” said Michael Beaton, the Health Services Agency’s director of administrative services.

The state grant includes money to cover first and last month’s rent and security deposits, Riera said, and the county has federal funds to pay for housing for 15 individuals. He plans to use federal “Shelter Plus Care” and Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers and “master leasing” with a nonprofit holding the apartment lease to help people get into housing. “I think that’s critical,” said Leopold.

“We’ve been thinking inside the box — this is almost outside the box,” said Maria Correia, who chairs the county’s mental health advisory board.

© 2017 Santa Cruz Sentinel (


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