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Colorado's New Behavioral Health Blueprint Aims To Put People First

Polis BHTF Blueprint Presser_3.JPG
Office of Gov. Jared Polis
Gov. Jared Polis announces the state's new behavioral health blueprint which will focus on putting people first.

Colorado recently released a new plan to address behavioral health care across the state. The behavioral health blueprint will streamline care and put people first, said Gov. Jared Polis.

“The behavior health blueprint today sets a bold achievable vision for making behavioral health more efficient and more effective,” Polis said. “Centralizing care, making it so consumers have a one-stop shop for behavioral needs.”

The blueprint was created by the Behavioral Health Task Force. Colorado Edition co-host Henry Zimmerman spoke to KUNC’s Stephanie Daniel to learn more about the state's plan.

Interview Highlights

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Henry Zimmerman: The governor created this task force in the spring of last year to evaluate the state’s behavioral health system and develop a statewide plan to transform it. Now that we have the plan, what’s in it?

Stephanie Daniel: The blueprint says about 1 million Coloradans need behavioral health care. Historically, the state hasn’t been able to provide enough mental health and substance use services to meet the demand. Here are some sobering statistics.

  • Mental Health America ranks Colorado 29th worst among states in terms of the prevalence of mental illness and access to care.
  • Last year 95,000 residents with substance use disorder went without treatment.

Robert Werthwein, director of the Office of Behavioral Health and co-chair of several task force subcommittees, says the blueprint has three phases. The first includes creating a behavioral health administration to streamline care.

“There are over 10 different state agencies involved in behavioral health in Colorado. And we believed we could do a better job of being coordinated and more efficient and getting care delivered out to individuals throughout the state. If we pulled all those components together to make a large component of not so much telling other agencies what to do or how to do it, but be those experts and to be the that group that says, ‘Department of Corrections, you have parolees that you're responsible for. Let us be that agency that's responsible for making sure behavior health care is available to those individuals and getting that delivered.’”

Another part of phase one is to expand and increase tele-behavioral health services. This is something that’s being utilized more and more during to the coronavirus pandemic.

This task force had already been working for about nine months before COVID-19. How did they adjust their work because of it?

Back in May, the governor asked the group to establish the COVID-19 Special Assignment Committee. They were tasked with creating an interim report highlighting the short and long-term impacts of the virus on the behavioral health system. Tele-behavioral health was the first issue they tackled.

The committee also saw a significant increase in crisis hotline calls, says Werthwein. Opioid use and overdose deaths are also on the rise and it’s hard to predict the virus’ true impact on behavioral health.

“But we do know there's a need because people are struggling, they're struggling. What we also know is things like isolation can be difficult for some people. Unemployment, there's a strong relationship between unemployment and unfortunately suicide rates, so we're keeping an eye on that. As unemployment increases, we need to make sure we're reaching out to people we have services available that they can also reach out and get services they need.”

The blueprint started out with nearly 200 recommendations that were then streamlined into six pillars which the state says represents the foundation for a strong behavioral health system. The pillars are access, affordability, workforce and support, accountability, consumer and local guidance, and whole person care. The goal is to create a behavioral health system that “puts people first.”

The second phase will set up a care coordination structure.

"There’s some really good work going on in Colorado. But as a collective, as a whole, it's too fragmented and we just have too many Coloradans who are trying to figure it out on their own. And it's our job to help them. It's our job to say, “you don't need to go through this all on your own. We know this could be bureaucratic and administratively burdensome. Let us help you out.”

You mentioned the new Behavioral Health Administration, tele-behavioral health and care coordination. What else does the blueprint recommend?

It says the state needs to do a better job addressing health equity. Disparities exist, says Werthwein, and all residents do not have the same access care. Here's Werthwein again:

We've got to close those gaps. People with physical disabilities being able to physically access Behavioral Health Care, we've got to make sure that we're closing that gap. Deaf and blind different, different minorities in Colorado. The numbers show we're not equally reaching different populations in Colorado and we've got to sort of revamp and retool how we approach that. There has to be equity right. It has to be accessed for all Coloradans.”

The task force is focused on these disparities. As the blueprint’s implementation plan is developed, health equity will be a central component of all the work being done.

If you or someone you know needs behavioral health services, call Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255.

This interview is part of KUNC's Colorado Edition for Sept. 23. You can find the full episode here.

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