South Dakota legislators plan to carry mental health improvement work into 2021

Task force wants to gather more information on new programs

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The South Dakota State Capitol building in Pierre. (Republic file photo)

PIERRE -- Looking to continue progress on a number of fronts, a task force on mental health services in South Dakota concluded its 2020 meetings on Wednesday, with plans for more work around the effort in 2021.

The Mental Health Services Delivery Task Force, which consists of state legislators and members of the public, made clear they would like to gather during the 2021 interim period following the upcoming legislative session. That would take additional action from the South Dakota Legislature’s Executive Board at the end of the 2021 session.

“There are no cookie cutters that work for everyone with mental health,” said Task Force Chairman Rep. Kevin Jensen, R-Canton.

One effort that legislators see as promising is the Virtual Crisis Care pilot program. It equips South Dakota law enforcement and court service officers in 23 counties to communicate with individuals through video conferencing through Avera eCare in Sioux Falls, in order to de-escalate in moments of crisis. The program, which is being run through the state’s Unified Judicial System, is designed to help law enforcement with complex mental health issues and taxpayers are to benefit from fewer mental health holds, transports and hospitalizations.

Rep. Linda Duba, D-Sioux Falls, cited recent statistics about the program, noting it had been used 20 times and 15 individuals were able to stay in their current place and receive telehealth treatment, or 75 percent. (Five others were committed, four involuntarily, she said.)


“That is really huge,” she said. “I really recommend that we keep our eye on it and we work with (UJS) to find a way to fund it going forward.”

Currently, the program is scheduled to be funded through June 2021, which would allow the state to follow-up again in the summer of 2021 and evaluate the successes further and consider how to fund it long-term. Most of the counties using the program are law enforcement only, while the northwest part of the state has probation officers and law enforcement in the program.

A $1 million donation earlier this year from the Helmsley Charitable Trust is a major reason the pilot program was able to get started in 2020.

Other criminal justice improvements as it relates to mental health in the state includes reducing wait times for competency evaluations and adding more evaluators to complete those evaluations. UJS testified earlier this year that the state now as 32 individuals equipped do to competency evaluations -- which are used to determine if a person can stand trial -- up from just six prior to 2017, and the wait times for those evaluations is now an average of 67 days, down from a period of 4-6 months prior to 2017.

Wednesday marked the fourth time the committee has met since August, and much of the conversation has addressed how to create infrastructure to help with prevention, early intervention and crisis support on mental health issues. A separate task force has also worked on mental health as it pertains to community first responders.

Another goal has been to limit the number of individuals being sent to the state’s Human Services Center in Yankton to those in the most need. The cost per individual per day there is $700, experts have testified earlier this year. Some of those discussions have centered around continuing to support regional-based care for screenings, assessments, therapy, with a focus on targeted populations such as at-risk youth and adults with serious mental illness.

Rep. Tim Reed, R-Brookings, said another year should allow the Legislature to evaluate what funding source makes the most sense for regional crisis centers, whether that’s on a continued basis or a one-time effort.

“We can review how this is going,” Reed said. “We have a lot of good things going on.”


“We have so many things in their infancy,” added Sen. Wayne Steinhauer, R-Hartford. “I think that we need to have a checkup next year.”

Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at
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