Colorado ski-resort county hopes to tax pot to fund mental health services

By David O. Williams

When Eagle County Public Health and Environment director Chris Lindley moved up to the Vail Valley from Denver a few months ago, he was stunned to learn his new home doesn’t have a single bed for people dealing with mental health or substance abuse issues.

“Being new to the county and coming up here from Denver, I’m shocked that in a community as wealthy and with as many resources and in this beautiful natural environment that we lack the mental health resources for the people that live and work here,” said Lindley, who worked for the Colorado Department of Health and Environment for 10 years in Denver.

Now an employee of the county that’s home to Vail and Beaver Creek ski areas, Lindley can’t take a position on Eagle County’s Issue 1A on the Nov. 7 ballot, but he understands why the county commissioners decided to ask voters for a 2.5 percent tax on recreational but not medical marijuana sales that would be capped at 5 percent after five years.

“The fact that if someone is in a crisis, the closest mental health bed is two to two and a half hours away [in Grand Junction, Denver or Pueblo], is just unacceptable,” Lindley said. “We have to do better.”

An Iraq combat veteran as a U.S. Army reservist, Lindley is now blown away by his magnificent mountain surroundings. But the grandeur masks an uneasy existence for a lot of residents, he says, as people struggle with one of the highest costs of living in the state, a severe lack of affordable housing, runaway health insurance rates and a hard-partying culture.

“[Mental health] is totally stigmatized here, and there have been all kinds of questions of why is it that in the resort communities, the mountain communities, that suicide rates are higher than the rest of the state, and part of that is we don’t talk about it, because everything is great,” Lindley said. “Everything’s perfect.”

Eagle County has already surpassed the 2016 suicide total with 10 so far this year, six of them women, and a Gypsum woman hung herself in the Garfield County Jail just last week. Neighboring Summit County, home to Breckenridge and Keystone ski areas, also has seen a big spike in suicides in recent years.

Frisco, which is in Summit County, could see a four- to six-bed mental health crisis facility as soon as next spring, using state marijuana tax money set aside by the legislature last year, but that won’t have the direct impact on more populous Eagle County that Lindley says is needed.

“With the Frisco facility it will be a little closer, but we’re still one major snow pass away [over frequently closed Vail Pass],” Lindley said. “Depending on what time of year it is, you might be able to get there, but the bigger thing is where’s the population? It’s here, right in the Vail Valley.”

Summit County’s year-round population of just over 30,000 people is significantly lower than Eagle County’s year-round population of more than 53,000.

Expected to raise up to $1.2 million a year if passed, the money will not go toward the construction of any facilities in Eagle County but instead will provide operational funds for either the treatment or prevention of mental health or substance abuse issues, Lindley said.

With the support of other local health care providers and spearheaded by Mountain Family Health Centers, the county is working on a building to house both a mental health facility and a federally qualified health clinic for low-income residents to replace the current overcrowded facility in Edwards.

“We were getting ready to build a building with them … and expand their capacity and add mental health and public health and build a whole new building in the center of Edwards right on a bus line where they can serve more people,” Eagle County Commissioner Jill Ryan said.

“And if the Medicaid expansion goes away, that just won’t be possible,” Ryan added, referring to the ongoing debate over the Affordable Care Act. “They will be stuck in the same facility they have, unable to meet the needs of the most vulnerable populations in our community.”

Despite a recent executive order undercutting the ACA by withholding federal health insurance subsidies, President Donald Trump on Tuesday indicated support for a bipartisan Senate bill that would actually stabilize the ACA. Still, Eagle County’s new integrated clinic remains in flux.

Former Colorado Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff, who’s now the president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado, described a recent meeting he had with the Eagle County commissioners.

“[Commissioner Ryan asked] me, ‘Should we wait for Washington to approve funding for mental health care or to improve the mental health system?’ and I said to her, ‘If you’re going to wait for Washington, this is probably going to be a very long meeting,’” quipped Romanoff, whose group backs 1A and hopes other counties will be inspired by Eagle County if it passes.

“It’s local, it’s targeted and it’s a matter of life and death,” said Romanoff, whose own cousin Melissa shot herself to death in the backyard at a family New Year’s Day celebration in 2015. “There’s not a community in the state that is free from this problem.”

Romanoff says there are a variety of ways to fund mental health services, including possibly redirecting funds from other programs. Larimer County tried and failed to raise its sales taxes last year, and he expects proponents of mental health treatment will try again next year. The key, he adds, is building bipartisan coalitions and getting the word out.
The cost of doing nothing is much higher than finding the funds somewhere to deal with the issue up front, he says.

“When I was a kid my mom was a social worker and my dad was a prosecutor. It’s not a combination I recommend, because they got divorced, but it does tell you sort of where you want to address mental health issues,” Romanoff said. “You can take my mom’s line of work, which is my preference, obviously, and treat it as a public health priority, or you can wait until it reaches the crisis point and then sometimes end up in my dad’s courtroom.”

Vail Valley prosecutors and police are very supportive of increased mental health services.

“In this country the jails and the prisons are the primary mental health providers and that’s just not right,” Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger said, expressing optimism about the possible Summit County mental health facility and funding solutions closer to home in Eagle County. The lack of beds locally is problematic for local law enforcement, he adds.

“It means us transporting people to either Grand Junction or Pueblo, and that’s a huge amount of time to take a police officer off the streets,” Henninger said. “And is it fair to have them detained and locked up and contained in a patrol car for what could be a four-hour drive to Pueblo?”

Deputy District Attorney Dylan Roberts, an Eagle resident running for the state House District 26 seat recently vacated by Diane Mitsch Bush, fully supports 1A but also thinks there’s more than can be done in the state legislature.

“It’s a funding issue, of course, and if we can find more funding for this great, but also giving courts and probation officers more leeway in getting people directed to these mental health services so that they’re not just languishing in jail and not getting any treatment is an important step that could be looked at legislatively,” Roberts said.

Recently renamed Vail Health in Vail and Edwards, Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs, and relative newcomers Kaiser and Centura in Edwards and Avon, respectively, all support the 1A marijuana tax increase. So does the valley’s largest employer, Vail Resorts.

Mental health and substance abuse has become an increasingly serious issue in many Vail Resorts communities, including Eagle County, but the lack of facilities and services to address the problem prompted the Broomfield-based company to officially support 1A.

ADA Roberts, who grew up in the resort town of Steamboat Springs, is glad so many different organizations throughout ski country are finally trying to tackle an issue that used to be taboo.

“We don’t want to talk about it,” Roberts said. “We live in paradise, right?”

This article originally appeared in Colorado Politics.