How do we preserve mental health care as an essential benefit?

By Andrew Romanoff, Guest Commentary

What can we agree on?

 That’s a question worth asking, as a new herd of lawmakers gathers in Denver and Washington.  Last year’s elections probably convinced many Americans that the answer is “almost nothing at all.”

Not so fast.

While the presidential race proved to be one of the most divisive in recent memory, a few signs of consensus emerged in Colorado. The subject: mental health.

In August, our nonpartisan organization asked every candidate for the Colorado General Assembly where they stood on the prevention and treatment of mental health and substance use disorders. Nearly 50 percent of the candidates — a mix of Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and independents — responded.

View the full list of questions and answers, along with the names of candidates who declined to participate, at

Here’s what the candidates said:

  • 91 percent support a requirement in current law that makes mental health care an essential benefit;
  • 94 percent support mental health parity — requiring insurers companies to provide coverage for the treatment of mental health and substance use disorders that is “no less extensive” than coverage for physical illnesses.
  • 92 percent support a requirement that insurers maintain an adequate network of mental health providers.

Finally, the survey noted that a shortage of therapeutic facilities has helped turn Colorado’s criminal justice system into a default destination for many people with mental health and substance use disorders. More than 92 percent of the candidates said the state should expand access to treatment instead.

Many of these candidates have just been sworn into office. The challenge now is to turn their sentiments into action.

How do we preserve mental health care as an essential benefit? How do we ensure mental health parity and network adequacy? And, perhaps most important, how do we make these critical services affordable and available, not only to individuals who face incarceration but to every Coloradan?

Those are questions we’ll have to answer, if we want to make our state a national leader in the prevention and treatment of mental health and substance use disorders.  We’re not there yet — not when Colorado has a higher suicide rate, a higher incidence of substance use disorders, and fewer psychiatric beds per capita than most states.

These problems touch every family in Colorado, and it will take leaders of every political stripe to solve them.

Andrew Romanoff is the president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado and former speaker of Colorado House of Representatives.

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