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New Transportation System Aims To Reduce Trauma For Patients

grey SUV with open doors and trunk in parking lot
SUVs will soon replace cop cars in many patient transports to the hospital. (Photo: Megan Pauly)

Right now, people experiencing a mental health crisis in Virginia are transported to the hospital in cop cars and in handcuffs. A new statewide transportation system called “alternative transportation” is about to change that for some patients.

On Monday, lawmakers got a peek inside a Dodge Durango, a typical vehicle that will be used to transport nonviolent patients to the hospital. The state aims to use the new method in about half of all transfers for involuntary patient submissions to a private or state hospital. Patients with medical complications, with an open wound or those who were highly aggressive will not qualify.

“I think the transportation can give people dignity,” Virginia Senator Creigh Deeds said. “You shouldn’t have to be handcuffed just because you’re sick, just because you’re in crisis. It can also put law enforcement officers back on the streets doing their jobs a lot quicker than they otherwise would be if they had to transport someone across the state.”

Earlier this year, global security company G4S obtained a $7 million two-year contract to provide the alternative transportation program statewide. Chris Roberts, a project manager for G4S, said the company already provides security services across Virginia, and for a few private hospital corporations.

He says the SUVs used for the statewide transportation system in Virginia are different from cop cars in a few ways. The cars are unmarked, patients aren’t handcuffed, and drivers aren’t armed. Additionally, drivers dress in plain clothes, not uniforms.

Drivers dress in plain clothes, and aren’t armed. Roberts says drivers often have a background in customer service, EMS, law enforcement, corrections, nursing or mental health.

“Mainly the mental health and healthcare experience is what we look for,” Roberts said.

Gail Paysour is coordinating the program for Virginia’s department of behavioral health. She says some of the best driver candidates they’ve had so far have been nursing students.

“They like that there are regular shifts, and they also have the basic knowledge of mental health,” Paysour said.

Paysour said drivers have to go through a background check and 80 hours of training in things like crisis de-escalation and Mental Health First Aid. She said each region will have its own quality assurance council that meets monthly to review data and outcomes.

The transportation system is launching in southwest Virginia October 7th. G4S has hired about 30 drivers so far, but aims to hire around 100 total by next summer, when the program is expected to be available statewide.

Mira Signer, commissioner for Virginia’s department of behavioral health, says other states have been reaching out to learn more about the program.

“We believe that Virginia is leading the way with alternative transportation,” Signer said. “We’re hopefully helping to lead the way in terms of what this could look like in other states.”