Sobering Centers Explained

An Innovative Solution for Care of Acute Intoxication

Shannon Smith-Bernardin
Bonar Menninger, Freelance writer


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Sobering centers offer a cost-effective alternative for providing care to intoxicated adults whose public alcohol use puts themselves or others at risk. New interest in the decades-old approach has been sparked by CalAIM (California Advancing and Innovating Medi-Cal) (PDF),  a multiyear process led by the California Department of Health Care Services to improve the health outcomes and quality of life experienced by Medi-Cal patients. CalAIM will designate sobering centers as one of 14 reimbursable, non-traditional services available to augment or supplant traditional medical care. The reforms are designed to foster greater integration between physical health, mental health, and social services for high-risk Medi-Cal enrollees.

A 2020 state law, California Assembly Bill 1544, which is aimed at easing emergency department overcrowding, has also focused new attention on these programs. AB 1544 authorizes local emergency management services agencies to develop triage programs that allow for the transport of non-emergent mental health and substance use patients to alternative care destinations.

Learn more about these programs through the following publications:

  • An issue brief provides a high-level look at sobering programs.
  • A report by leading expert Shannon Smith-Bernardin, PhD, RN, assistant professor in the School of Nursing at the University of California, San Francisco, provides a comprehensive description of these programs currently operating in California.