Getting serious about mental health: Colorado Legislature passed nearly 30 bills in past two years

Melanie Bighorse, left, and Bobby Sims, wait to see a mental health professional at the Ryan Wellness Center in Boulder on Friday.
Melanie Bighorse, left, and Bobby Sims, wait to see a mental health professional at the Ryan Wellness Center in Boulder on Friday.

Boulder County boasts one of highest ratios of mental health care providers to population in the country, but many residents still struggle to get help, as they do statewide. .

According to Mental Health Colorado, more than 1 million Coloradans experience mental health or substance use disorders each year, yet half of them — and 1 in 6 Medicaid recipients — don’t get the mental health and substance use services they need, causing suicide to be the No. 1 cause of death for Coloradans age 10 to 24.

“Colorado has always been a low-tax state with a culture of self-reliance, so this is something Colorado has neglected for a long time,” State Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, said. “Fortunately, we’re seeing both Democrats and Republicans turn their attention toward it because we simply can’t afford to ignore it anymore.”

With the Statehouse focused on reforming the mental health system, legislators and mental health professionals are optimistic the barriers to care faced by an estimated 60,000 individuals in Boulder County with some form of mental illness, will begin to be removed

The Legislature has passed nearly 30 mental health care bills approved over the past two years.

“From having more mental health folks in elementary schools, to focusing on suicide prevention, to just providing more money for mental health and substance use services in Colorado, it’s been a big focus,” Speaker of the House KC Becker, D-Boulder, said. “But until we see the teen suicide rates actually drop and until we do a better job of addressing mental health resources — like we don’t really have any open beds for folks facing competency issues — it will continue to be a priority for us.”

Perhaps the most significant legislation is the Mental Health Parity Insurance Medicaid bill.

It states that “every health benefit plan must provide coverage for the prevention of, screening for and treatment of behavioral, mental health, and substance use disorders that is no less extensive than the coverage provided for any physical illness.”

While the Obama administration passed similar laws as part of the Affordable Care Act, according to Joshua Ewing, the associate vice president of Legislative Affairs for the Colorado Hospital Association, there have been issues of compliance at the state level.

“As a mission-driven, community behavioral health center, Mental Health Partners wants to ensure that every client who walks through our door receives the care they need,” said Hans Wiik, the interim chief executive officer for Mental Health Partners, a nonprofit with locations in Boulder, Broomfield, Longmont and Lafayette . “Unfortunately, we have seen cases where our clients have been unable to continue receiving services because unequal or limited insurance reimbursement created unexpected out-of-pocket expenses that they could not afford. We hope this recent legislation will decrease the number of this instances by improving access to these much-needed behavioral health services.”

As more providers are required to offer care, the Legislature also passed several bills allocating funds to expand existing programs, such adding more mental and behavioral health professionals in schools, increasing funding for suicide prevention and creating pilot programs to study the most effective ways for increasing the state’s capacity for care — especially for those in the criminal justice system or who have become addicted to illegal substances as a result of self-medicating.

It also created new programs such as a behavioral health ombudsman, which will help ensure people are connected with the right resources and will compile an annual report about any gaps in services, and the behavioral health crisis transitional referral program, which will provide intensive case management services for “high risk” individuals whose frequent needs can often overload the system.

“Before they are ever discharged, someone from the transitional referral program is meeting with them to figure out what they need and connecting them with everything from community-based treatment and driving them to their appointments, to finding them secure housing,” said Joshua Ewing, associate vice president of legislative affairs for the Colorado Hospital Association.   “We’re really excited about these programs. They’re just now getting off the ground and if we have success with that, that we can build upon it and take it beyond just the highest need and use it as a model for treatment.”

While the state has invested millions into the infrastructure necessary for dealing with the issue, including medical facilities and economic incentives to help recruit and retain mental health professionals, scaling programs to size will not only require time, but also assistance from the private sector.

At least so far they’ve stepped up. In the last year alone, McKee Medical Center in Loveland announced the addition of a $3 million mental health services center specializing in elderly care. The state of the art, $45 million, 70,000-square-foot Della Cava Family Medical Pavilion in Boulder opened in April.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll begin to see much-needed changes in the mental health care system in the next 12 to 18 months thanks to these efforts,” Ewing said. “I’m also realistic that with every well-intentioned policy new challenges arise. So I think we should be really proud about the steps we’ve taken. Colorado is now at the forefront of a lot of these efforts, but we have a long way to go before every Coloradan has access to the services they need when they need them.”