RICHMOND, Va. — A new program is launching next month to provide alternative transportation to in-patient treatment for Virginians experiencing a mental health crisis and are under a temporary detention order, or TDO. ​​

The Department of Behavioral Health and Human Services (DBHDS) signed a $7 million two-year contract, with the option to extend, with the company G4S in May. The General Assembly set aside funding in the state budget for this.​​

The company will operate vehicles to drive people to a hospital bed. Six vehicles will initially be rolled out in southwest Virginia, which state officials say is where the need is greatest right now.

​​G4S has a contract with North Carolina as well. It has been working there for the past seven years doing similar transports.

​​Officials say the drivers are unarmed and have training in “trauma-informed care” to help patients while they are dealing with a crisis. ​​

“What [patients] have to go through to get from point A to point B has been traumatic in a lot of different areas,” Chris Roberts, the project manager for patient support services at G4S, said.​​​

Most who are transported fall under the supervision of local law enforcement. In fiscal year 2018, July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018, there were more than 25,000 TDOs. DBHDS officials say this is also about the average per year over the past five years. These cases include both children and adults. ​

​DBHDS estimates law enforcement drove 99 percent of these people, many may have been handcuffed while in the vehicle with an officer.

​​”I think that transportation can give people dignity. You shouldn’t have to be handcuffed just because you’re sick,”  Sen. Creigh Deeds, (D) District 25, said. ​​

Dana Schrad, the Executive Director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, says this has put a strain on agencies, between overtime and officers being taken off their regular patrols.

​​Sen. Deeds, who has become a mental health advocate after being injured in late 2013 by his son, Gus, who later died by suicide, says this program is a step in the right director for the Commonwealth but more can still be done.

“[The program] can also put law enforcement officers back on the street, doing their jobs a lot quicker,” Sen. Deeds said. ​​

DBHDS officials say some individuals were transported up to six hours to get care. Officers assigned to transport a TDO also have to stay with the patient until they can be admitted to a hospital, which would tack on more time too. ​​

Having these alternative transportation services, Schrad says, will also provide more “dignity and privacy” for patients with a TDO.

​​The vehicles are equipped with cameras to keep an eye on the patients, road and driver. There is also a divider with some shading to give the up to two patients being transported privacy. Also, there is a box in the back of the vehicle so personal items and medical records can be kept safe during the drive. ​​

Windows also have little slats in them so patients can roll them down, without being able to leave the vehicle, so they can get fresh air. ​​

The drivers also have business casual uniforms, that company officials say makes the patients more comfortable. ​​

DBHDS officials estimate G4S will drive up to 50 percent of all TDOs during the two-year contract. 

Whether or not a patient is eligible for this alternative transportation will be determined initially by a Community Service Board. The magistrate who signs off on the TDO will make the final call on if the patient can qualify for the program. The magistrate will also designate which hospital the patient would go to, DBHDS officials say. 

This program has been in the works for four years and there was a two year pilot project in southwest Virginia as well. It will be evaluated by the state and lawmakers to determine if the partnership should continue following the initial contract.​

“I’m hopeful, at the beginning,” Sen. Deeds said. “But, I’m generally hopeful in nature.”

CORRECTION: The broadcast version of the story stated patients are transported to “state hospitals.” Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services officials say the hospital would be designated by the magistrate issuing the TDO.