Everyone who’s grown up in Greensboro has at least one horror story about how long they or a relative in distress had to wait before getting treated in the emergency room – sometimes even on, say, a Tuesday morning with only two other people in the waiting room.

For years, hospitals have provided excuses and explanations (none of which is that they don’t properly staff the emergency department). One popular excuse is that the emergency rooms are often inundated with cases that don’t belong there – mental patients, substance abusers on a bad trip, hypochondriacs with a common cold, etc. – and that there’s not enough time to filter out and deal with the true emergencies quickly.

Under former Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips, about six years ago, Guilford County began a bold initiative to create a new properly staffed dedicated behavioral health urgent care facility to treat mental health and substance abuse patients in crisis – in part to see that those cases didn’t end up in local emergency rooms.

At the time that Guilford County made the move, advocates said the new approach could become a model for behavioral healthcare across North Carolina and now it appears that’s happening.

This week, as part of what state health officials call an “ongoing commitment to improve behavioral health and resilience in North Carolina,” the NC Department of Health and Human Services (NC DHHS) is “investing in transforming the state’s behavioral crisis response system to ensure people experiencing a behavioral health emergency have alternatives to emergency departments when seeking the care they need.”

The NC DHHS announced a two-year plan to invest roughly $15 million in behavioral health urgent care centers across North Carolina.

State officials say this move will increase the state’s capacity to provide behavioral health urgent care by nearly 50 percent.

On Tuesday, April 9, the state held a ribbon cutting ceremony to celebrate the opening of one such behavioral health urgent care center in Rockingham County.

NC Secretary for Health and Human Services Kody Kinsley said this is a big step in getting behavioral health patients to the places where they can get the proper care.

“Behavioral health is essential to health,” Kinsley stated. “We’re building from the ground-up a behavioral health system that gives every North Carolinian someone to call, someone to respond, and somewhere to go for care.  These new behavioral health urgent cares are an important part of ensuring people have more options for timely, effective and trauma-informed crisis care.”

A press release announcing the opening of the Rockingham County facility stated, “While traditional urgent care centers focus primarily on physical health care, behavioral health urgent care facilities provide mental health and substance use services for children and adults experiencing a crisis. As an alternative to emergency departments, behavioral health urgent cares offer 24-hour access to mental health specialists who can assist with diagnosis and assessment, medication management and treatment options – getting people the right care at the right time and in the right setting.”

Of an $835 million investment in behavioral health in the 2023 state budget, more than $130 million is dedicated to improving North Carolina’s behavioral crisis system.