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With COVID Hanging In The Background, Mental Health Bills Advance At The Statehouse

Ken Lund
CC BY-SA 2.0

A bill that would funnel millions of dollars into a wide range of services from medication-assisted treatment for substance use disorders, to vouchers for mental health care in rural areas, to screening for mood and anxiety issues for some new mothers passed in the Colorado Senate on Tuesday and now heads over the House for consideration.

“Even before the pandemic, we knew that we were not meeting mental health needs and addiction needs throughout the state,” Sen. Faith Winter, a Democrat and one of the sponsors of the Behavioral Health Recovery Act, said Monday. “And we know that the second curve of responding to the pandemic is coming. And that second curve is responding to our mental health needs after we’ve collectively gone through this pandemic and also addressing the addiction crisis we’re seeing in this state.”

Since last March, a growing body of research indicates that Americans have been suffering from high levels of isolation, stress, anxiety and depression. Colorado Crisis Services, the state’s 24-hour support line, has received record call volumes since last spring. Some hospitals have been seeing higher percentages of kids coming in for help during a mental health crisis. According to preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdose deaths increased by 42% in Colorado as of September 2020, compared to the previous year ending in September.

Sen. Cleave Simpson, a Republican who represents a vast area in southern Colorado, said he initially voted against the bill in committee. The first version of the legislation contained so many large appropriations, for so many behavioral health programs, Simpson said he just wasn’t comfortable as a new legislator.

“But I spent an abundance of time reflecting on the impacts in my community in rural Colorado, particularly around suicide,” Simpson said on the senate floor this week. “I think about the number of instances recently of illegal drug use in my community. Impacts to the system have been tremendous. After much reflection and thoughtfulness I’m actually speaking in support of the bill.”

In an email, Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican who represents the Eastern Plains and voted no on the bill, wrote that he believed a few problematic elements of the bill “outweighed the good.”

“The first is that most bills that have a continuing appropriation don't get reviewed each year and continue on a path without oversight,” Sonnenberg wrote. “The cost is a large one. Although we need more resources on mental health, we should still have accountability.”

Initially, according to a fiscal note from March 25th, the price tag was $33.9 million for this fiscal year and then $12.7 million for the following year. Since then, the legislation has been cut down significantly to around $11 million. According to Sen. Brittany Pettersen, around $100 million in additional one-time funding will come from federal stimulus dollars through a bill currently being drafted.

Colorado senators approved a handful of other behavioral health bills this week, which will now go to the House for consideration:

  • Veteran Suicide Prevention Pilot Program (SB21-129): Under this bill, Colorado’s Department of Human Services would establish a pilot program to reduce suicide among veterans by providing free treatment to post-9/11 veterans and their families.
  • 988 Suicide Prevention Lifeline Network (SB21-154): Following last year’s federal legislation designating 988 as the nation-wide mental health alternative to 911, this bill establishes the number in Colorado, directing the Department of Human Services to contract with a nonprofit to create the 988 crisis hotline center.
  • 2-1-1 Statewide Human Services Referral System (SB21-239): The 211 phone system that connects Coloradans with resources like childcare, housing and rental assistance would expand to include referrals for behavioral health services, particularly for unemployed Coloradans.

Colorado representatives approved a handful of other behavioral health bills this week which will now go to the Senate for consideration:

  • Expanding Peace Officers Mental Health Grant Program (HB21-1030): This bill would expand on-scene services when law enforcement responds to emergency calls involving an individual with a mental health issue or social service need. Partnerships would include behavioral health clinicians, housing navigators and others.
  • Secure Transportation Behavioral Health Crisis (HB21-1085): Instead of using traditional ambulance services to transport an individual in a behavioral health crisis, this bill creates a system for licensing alternate transportation services.
  • Behavioral Health Crisis Response Training (HB21-1166): This bill would create behavioral health training for individuals who work with people who have disabilities coupled with behavioral health needs.
As KUNC's Senior Editor and Reporter, my job is to find out what’s important to northern Colorado residents and why. I seek to create a deeper sense of urgency and understanding around these issues through in-depth, character driven daily reporting and series work.