The Connecticut House of Representatives unanimously passed one of three major bills Wednesday that would improve access to mental health services for children, adolescents and young adults, with several members saying the proposal would save lives.
The Chamber voted 149-0 in favor of the measure. The bill has 73 sections covering everything from reciprocity of licensing for out-of-state providers to establishing a pilot program that would provide intensive outpatient services to youth with mental or behavioral health problems.
Following public forums, community dialogues and media reports of a growing mental health crisis among Connecticut youth, lawmakers formed a bipartisan working group last fall to share ideas and develop proposals to be put forward during the 2022 legislative session. Three wide-ranging bills were introduced: Senate Bill 2, which passed the Senate last week and focuses on resources for early childhood children; Senate Bill 1 providing services in schools; and House Bill 5001, which vacated the house on Wednesday.
Lawmakers said the House measure will set aside $36.2 million for a variety of programs, new positions and other initiatives.
“Among our youth we have seen increasing cases of anxiety, depression, suicide and suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, children in emergency rooms – where they can stay an average of five days before the next level of treatment is available. and long waitlists due to lack of providers, programs and/or services,” said Rep. Tammy Exum, D-West Hartford, a key supporter of the bill. “While there were mental health issues before the pandemic, the issues have worsened and the gaps have been highlighted.”
The bill would require the state Department of Public Health to implement a plan to allow reciprocity of licenses for out-of-state mental and behavioral health service providers, particularly those treating children. The goal of the program is to expand the available workforce to serve Connecticut’s youth.
The proposal would establish a grant program for local and regional education authorities to hire additional school mental health specialists. It would also set up a grant program for school boards and operators of youth camps or other summer activities to help cover student mental health care needs.
The bill would require certain health plans to offer coverage for two mental health wellness exams per year performed by a licensed mental health provider and waive the requirement for prior approval. The measure also requires the state health advocate to designate an employee to oversee services specifically for minors and launch a peer-to-peer mental health support program.
The emotionally charged discussion of the proposal lasted nearly four hours on Wednesday. Several representatives shared the challenges of caring for a family member who needed access to mental health services.
Exum boarded a plane in the midst of the pandemic to take her son to Colorado for inpatient treatment for an eating disorder. There are no spots available in Connecticut, she said.
“At the height of the pandemic, we got on a plane and flew our child to Colorado to be placed in someone else’s hands. … It was a matter of life or death. We had to do that,” she said. “If we talk about intensive inpatient programs, then later [lead to] intensive outpatient programs — we don’t have it in the state of Connecticut on the scale and scale that we need to help every child who needs it.”
Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, said lawmakers have heard the parents’ plight and are responding.
“I’m part of a group of parents discussing what it’s like to raise a child with a mental illness,” she said through tears. “And I didn’t realize the importance of having parenting services until a mother explained to me that she has PTSD because she literally had to go into her child’s room and pick them up from where it was attached to his Belt hung to bring him down.”
“This is real. This bill is real. It’s creating real change. It’s transformative,” Linehan said. “Sometimes we use those words when we’re trying to pass legislation. But that’s it; that’s what this one is.” bill is real. It will make a difference in so many lifetimes.”
Rep. William Petit, R-Plainville, called the measure a “good first step.” In the coming years, the legislature must continue to look for ways to strengthen the provider network in Connecticut.
“One of the biggest battles we’ll have to face in mental health over the next decade is with providers,” Petit said. “We need to increase the number of providers.”
After the bill was passed on Wednesday, the House of Representatives chamber erupted in applause. The measure now goes to the Senate for final approval.
“We keep hearing that there are all these problems that people think they can’t overcome. And the last three or four hours of this debate really should send out the message that we heard you,” Linehan said. “This bill is about the lived experiences of those who say, ‘Hey, I can’t find anyone to treat my child.’ Well, guess what, we’re working on that for the long term.”