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Informing Policy. Advancing Health.

Behavioral Health in the Spotlight this Session

January 28, 2013

We’re already seeing much discussion at the legislature on the need to more effectively treat mental disorders at the state and national levels – an issue that the Colorado Health Institute anticipates will be a hot topic throughout this session.

During joint House and Senate health committee meetings over the past two weeks, the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing and the Department of Human Services provided legislators with details of Governor Hickenlooper’s $18.5 million proposal to expand mental health services across the state.

Here are some key elements of the governor’s plan:

  • Create a mental health crisis response system: Uses $10.27 million from the General Fund to create a statewide crisis hotline and five walk-in crisis centers for urgent mental health issues. The plan also calls for more early-intervention services and resources. Dr. Lisa Clements, director of the state’s Office of Behavioral Health, told the joint health committees that the plan aims to reduce reliance on jails, homeless shelters and costly emergency departments for treating behavioral health emergencies.
  • Enhance community-based mental health services: Provides $4.8 million to increase capacity in community-based mental health facilities – expanding case management, establishing two 15-bed facilities to transition people from institutional care back into the community and providing more housing vouchers for the mentally ill.
  • Create jail-based restoration center: Earmarks $2.06 million for a 20-bed hospital facility in Denver to treat offenders who are not competent to stand trial.
  • Update commitment statutes: Revises and streamlines commitment statutes, possibly lowering the threshold for committing a patient involuntarily.
  • Expand substance abuse benefits for Medicaid clients: Increases or eliminates caps and offers new treatment options for Medicaid clients with substance abuse disorders. Sue Birch, Executive Director of the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, told the Joint Budget Committee that this proposal is part of the governor’s proposal to expand mental health services. Treatment services would be provided by the existing Behavioral Health Organizations, helping to better integrate physical and behavioral health into the state’s Accountable Care Collaborative program.

While many of the governor’s ideas appear to have initial bipartisan support, some legislators expressed concerns about the $18.5 million price tag. Representative Janak Joshi (R-Colorado Springs) said that $18.5 million is “a lot of taxpayer money” and suggested that, if implemented, the new programs should be carefully monitored for effectiveness. “We need to make sure we are getting our money’s worth,” he said during last week’s joint health committee meeting.  

Lawmakers will need to approve the funds for the governor’s proposal, and revised commitment statutes would likely require new legislation, so it remains to be seen whether these enhanced mental health programs will go into effect.

Meanwhile, as I was leaving a legislative committee hearing last week, the issue of behavioral health hit home just a few feet from the Capitol’s front steps. A homeless man was mumbling to himself and striking up a conversation with a tree. Just the sort of person, I thought, who might benefit from a better mental health system in Colorado.