Bills to support children’s mental health come with lofty price tags
Three ambitious bills that aim to tackle the growing crisis of children’s mental health in Connecticut would devote tens of millions in funding to a broad range of initiatives, including a grant program to attract and retain child psychiatrists, expanded mobile crisis services and additional staff across multiple state departments to manage new projects.
The state’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis noted that one of the measures – Senate Bill 2 – could cost $202 to $210 million across the 2023 and 2024 fiscal years to support increased child care rates for providers and their employers. The proposal also would require $13.2 million to broaden access to mobile crisis services and up to $1 million to evaluate “the impact of social media and mobile phone use on students’ mental health.”
Another measure – House Bill 5001 – could tie as much as $440,000 to a grant program providing support for social workers and marital and family therapists who are seeking licensure as a clinical or master social worker. The Department of Public Health would need to hire a fiscal administration officer at a cost of about $78,000 to handle the initiative, OFA noted.
A second grant program, to attract and retain child psychologists in Connecticut, could range from $672,250 to $6.7 million depending upon the number of people eligible for the grants and the amount of each grant. The bill also sets aside $6.5 million for grants to intensive outpatient service providers, partial hospitalization programs, psychiatric residential treatment facilities and emergency mobile psychiatric service providers.
Despite the hundreds of millions in costs outlined, legislative leaders said the final agreed-upon expenses would instead be in the tens of millions. They noted that all three bills are still undergoing revisions and have yet to be voted on in the House or Senate.
House Speaker Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford, estimated the total costs to be $100 million to $125 million.
“The money needed to fund these bills will be in the budget,” he said.
Proponents say that while the proposals come with lofty price tags, the programs are necessary to address the ballooning crisis. During the pandemic, the number of children and teens waiting in emergency departments for inpatient psychiatric beds increased. In February, for example, that number more than doubled in Connecticut — to 56, up from 26, according to the Connecticut Hospital Association. An average of 38 children waited for care on any given day during that time. Of those 38, an average of 31 were between 13 and 17 years old, and seven were 12 or younger.
“If you look at the grand scheme of things, you have to know what it’s actually going to save down the line,” said Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, a key backer of the bills. “Investments do that. We are investing in children’s mental health, which is also an investment in adult mental health. If we can provide the treatment that kids need, they will grow up to be happy, healthy adults who don’t need expensive interventions.
“Any dollar amount attached to the legislation does not take into account the money that is saved long term.”
The proposals would be supported by a mix of money from the general fund, carry forward funds (money from the previous year’s budget that wasn’t spent), and American Rescue Plan Act funds. The ARPA money would be used to support short-term initiatives, while the general fund money would cover longer term programs. For example, ARPA funds could be used to purchase a mobile unit — a one-time cost — while the staff running that unit would be paid from the general fund.
“In conversations with my colleagues in the House and Senate — Democrats as well as Republicans — we all do passionately feel that we need to address this,” said Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, a co-sponsor of the bills. “Children’s behavioral health issues are very personal to each and every legislator and the communities they represent.”
The three bills all address children’s mental health issues but cover different areas. One proposal targets services in medical facilities and in the community, while another focuses on schools and a third involves early childhood initiatives broadly.
Each of the measures is lengthy and ties in dozens of programs and policies. Initiatives include license reciprocity for out-of-state mental health providers in order to expand the workforce; an education loan forgiveness program for qualifying employees in the mental health field who serve children and teenagers; and a requirement that individual and group health insurers cover evidence-based services used to treat mental and behavioral health conditions in children and teenagers.
Some of the programs outlined in Senate Bill 2, the early childhood proposal, may move to Senate Bill 1, the schools-focused measure, before passage, Anwar said.
Along with a hefty price tag, the bills could result in revenue loss. One proposal would allow municipalities to abate up to 100% of property taxes due for child care centers or child care group homes.
“The revenue loss would vary based on the amount of property tax abated, but could be significant (in excess of $1 million) in a municipality with a high number of such taxable facilities,” officials with OFA noted. There are about 1,400 child care centers and 1,900 family day care homes licensed in Connecticut.
Still, proponents of the legislation expect wide support in both chambers. Debate on the legislation could begin in the Senate as early as Friday.
“My sense is that the people who are not going to support this will [comprise] a very small group,” Anwar said. “These are bipartisan bills, with involvement of everybody at all levels.”