Bill would address youth mental health needs

Stronger system of care would result in cost savings, better outcomes, officials say


Kari Eckert lost her 15-year-old son, Robbie, to suicide five months ago. The Lakewood High School student was an athlete, a leader, everyone's friend, Eckert said. She saw no signs of struggle.

“Robbie struggled silently and he suffered alone,” said Eckert, sitting in a small room at the state Capitol on March 21, an hour before a bill aimed at curbing youth suicide would go to a Senate committee for debate.

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee unanimously agreed to send the bill to the Senate Committee on Appropriations.

Eckert was joined by parent Leslie Kobi, who spent eight years fighting for her son's mental health, and Heidi Baskfield, vice president of Population Health and Advocacy at Children's Hospital Colorado. Also in attendance at the intimate press conference were Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, and Rep. Lois Landgraf, R-Colorado Springs, sponsors of Senate Bill 19-195.

The bipartisan bill addresses what public officials and health experts call a youth mental health crisis. In Colorado, suicide is the leading cause of death for people ages 10-24, and one in six teens has a diagnosable mental health condition, Children's Hospital reports. Over the last decade, the hospital has seen a six-fold increase in admissions to its emergency departments and urgent care locations following a suicide attempt.

Fragmented services, a shortage of screenings and costly care are some of the barriers to adequate mental health care, experts and advocates in the field say.

“Our hospital continues to serve, in a way, as a warehouse for kids with complicated mental health needs because the system is not there to support them out in the community or in their own homes,” Baskfield said.

SB 19-195 — which is also sponsored by Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, and Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp, D-Arvada — aims to create that system.

The bill would create the Office of Children and Youth Behavioral Health Policy Coordination in the governor's office, along with a commission and advisory council.

The commission would serve as a “behavioral health backbone” for the state, with representation from counties, the Legislature, multiple state departments, the state attorney general's office and others. It would work to increase public awareness of youth behavioral needs and facilitate collaboration between communities, state departments and political subdivisions, the bill outlines.

The commission's immediate actions would be to implement cost-effective “wraparound” services — which provide a continuum of care for young people with complex needs — develop standardized assessment and screening tools, and design an integrated funding pilot project, according to the bill.

For the 2019-20 fiscal year, the bill would increase state spending by at least $1.3 million, according to the bill's fiscal note. Over time, legislators say the bill would save $25 million to $30 million by reducing the need for extensive, costly mental health services, such as inpatient care and residential treatment services.

Although the bill has a long way to go before it reaches the governor's office, backers are confident it will go through.

“I think this is one of, if not the most, important bill we are going to see this session when it comes to health,” Landgraf said. “You can't put a price tag on any one of these kids.”

Eckert agreed, emphasizing the significance of screening and assessing children for mental health issues.

"If Robbie was asked those questions," she said of her son, "maybe he would be here."


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