Senate OKs millions for mental health

Bill aims to create method of providing immediate care

DENVER — Though not as sexy or controversial as the gun bills approved by the Colorado General Assembly earlier this year, measures to beef up how the state addresses mental health issues to deal with gun violence are working their way through this year’s legislative session.

On Tuesday, the Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill that would allocate about $20 million next year — and about $25 million for every year after that — toward creating a “coordinated behavioral health crisis response system” specifically aimed at providing immediate care to mental health patients who pose a threat to themselves or others.

It is one of three measures the Legislature is considering in response to recent gun-violence incidents in the nation, including last summer’s shootings at an Aurora movie theater that left 12 people dead and more than 70 injured.

“In light of the tragedies that we had here in Colorado as well as the tragedy in Connecticut involving firearms and massive loss of life, we have been discussing whether there’s a path that we can explore to try and determine people who have a substantial risk of causing harm, both to themselves and to others,” said Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver, who’s sponsoring two of the measures. “In the course of this discussion, the issue of mental health and substance abuse has come up quite often.”

As a result, Democrats and a handful of Republicans have come together to propose a series of efforts to address the problem, some of which included passage of five gun-control measures such as universal background checks for all gun purchases.

While GOP and a few Democratic lawmakers didn’t approve of the gun bills, the two parties have been more on the same page when it comes to addressing the mental health side of the equation.

Chief among them is SB266, the measure that would create a five-part crisis system:

■ A 24-hour crisis hotline for people to talk through their difficulties;

■ A walk-in crisis center to do the same thing in person;

■ Crisis stabilization units in five population centers around the state to handle more troubled patients;

■ Residential and respite crisis services in the five population centers in which those patients can stay for up to five days; and

■ An advertising campaign to educate Coloradans about the new services specifically and the importance of not ignoring mental health treatment in general.

Colorado West Inc., which provides mental health and substance abuse treatment in 10 Western Slope counties, could be home to one of those response teams, said Sharon Raggio, chief executive officer of the Grand Junction-based facility.

The nonprofit, which has been offering mental health services to the Grand Valley since 1972, intends to bid on one or more of the contracts the state would offer under the bill to provide services it doesn’t already.

“We believe it aligns very nicely with the crisis services we currently offer and will allow us to strengthen them,” Raggio said. “We’re absolutely very interested in bidding on this and expanding the crisis services that we offer now, as well as offering the crisis stabilization unit.”

Raggio said she sees that unit as an important middle step between seeing mental health patients end up in jails or long-term mental health hospitals.

The units and the other components of the response system are designed to provide the right services to calm a patient down so they don’t end up at either.

Still, part of the issue does go further. That’s also why the Legislature is considering a bill to look at how best to streamline state laws that allow for committing patients to mental health facilities against their will.

The measure, HB1296, creates a task force to study the matter. It passed the House just last week and awaits more debate in the Senate.

The third measure also is a new task force, but one specifically aimed at mental health issues and firearms. The 27-member group to be created under HB1306 would look at the touchy subject of taking away — and possibly giving back — the right to purchase and possess firearms from patients after they have spent time in a mental health facility.

That bill was approved Tuesday by the House Health, Insurance & Environment Committee on a bipartisan 6-5 vote.


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