Bipartisan bill introduced to support Colorado’s mental health care, recovery providers

January 17, 2020

By: Ernest Luning

Originally appeared in Colorado Politics 

Lawmakers on Thursday introduced bipartisan legislation to boost the role of peer support professionals in Colorado, potentially easing a shortage of specialists who can help treat patients with mental health and addiction issues.

House Bill 20-1139, sponsored by state Reps. Yadira Caraveo, D-Thornton, and Rod Pelton, R-Cheyenne Wells, would authorize Medicaid to pay for additional services provided by peers — caregivers who have experienced various mental health and substance-use situations — and establish a tax credit to help them pay for continuing education.

“Their lived experience and training enable them to relate to and connect with people in powerful ways,” said Vincent Atchity, president and CEO of nonprofit advocacy organization Mental Health Colorado, in a release cheering the legislation’s introduction.

Added Atchity: “Without continuing education, peers may reach a professional ceiling. The tax credit gives these individuals a pathway to continued professional development and incentivizes them to pursue long-term careers in health care, thereby creating better outcomes for the mental health of our state.”

The bill, which was assigned to the House Public Health Care & Human Services Committee, creates a refundable income tax credit available to peers who go back to school or who graduate and return to work in the health care field. It would be authorized for 10 years and capped at a total of $100,000 annually.

Caraveo and Pelton sit on the Public Health Care committee.

Moe Keller, a former state lawmaker and Mental Health Colorado’s director of advocacy, told Colorado Politics before the legislative session opened that peers are considered a vital component in the behavioral health and recovery systems, but their services can only be provided in limited settings.

“Some peers work in mental health centers and detox centers, but they cannot work in jails, they cannot work in emergency rooms,” Keller said. “We’re trying to work this up so peers can run clubhouses, do mentoring, provide help with writing psychiatric advance directives.”

Atchity said that encouraging peers to fill more roles and helping pay for their continuing education could increase the number of professionals available to treat Coloradans. Currently, he added, only 30% of the documented need for those services is being met.

Other states that have taken similar steps found that robust peer services drastically reduced hospitalizations and helped cut psychotic symptoms among patients, Atchity said. In Georgia, reliance on peers helped save the state more than $5,000 per patient.