Bill prioritizes mental treatment instead of jail cell

By: Charles Ashby

March 30, 2019

DENVER — The state’s main leader in mental health matters is hailing a new bill introduced into the Colorado Legislature on Friday designed to get immediate treatment for people and keep them out of the criminal justice system.

The measure, SB222, calls on the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing to work with managed care entities to create incentives to get mental health care providers to accept Medicaid recipients with severe behavioral health disorders.

The bill also creates a community behavioral health safety net, and is aimed at getting people treatment in mental health facilities rather then ending up in county jails.

“We as a state have failed these individuals long before they had a competency restoration ordered,” said Mental Health Colorado’s state policy director, Lauren Snyder. “Mental health is the only condition where we wait until a person is at stage four to treat it, and even then, we’re more likely to call law enforcement when that person is in crisis.”

The bill was introduced by Sens. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, and Tammy Story, D-Golden, but it has bipartisan support. In the House, where it is sponsored by Reps. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, and Lois Landgraf, R-Fountain, it has already won support by Republicans and Democrats, including Reps. Janice Rich, R-Grand Junction, and Matt Soper, R-Delta.

The bill requires access to civil beds in the state’s two mental health institutes in Pueblo and Fort Logan in Denver. It doesn’t mandate that same access to Colorado West Mental Health, the only such facility on the Western Slope.

The bill revises the state’s current admission criteria for those Front Range facilities so that it focuses on a patient’s clinical needs, and not where they live or what insurance they have.

“The competency restoration crisis is in a complex problem and the solution requires extensive system change,” said Nancy VanDeMark, interim president and chief executive officer at Mental Health Colorado. “While this measure is just part of the equation, it will provide necessary systemic improvements to address the urgent need of people with serious mental health or substance use disorders, and help them avoid involvement with law enforcement.”

The bill was assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee. No hearing date has yet been set.

Originally appeared on The Daily Sentinel.