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House passes bill expanding access to children’s mental health services

Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, is a key supporter of the mental health legislation.
Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, is a key supporter of the mental health legislation.

The Connecticut House of Representatives on Wednesday unanimously passed one of three major pieces of legislation that would improve access to mental health services for children, teens and young adults, with several members saying the proposal would save lives.

The chamber voted 149-0 in favor of the measure. The bill contains 73 sections covering everything from license reciprocity for out-of-state providers to the establishment of a pilot program that would offer intensive outpatient services to adolescents with mental or behavioral health issues.

Following public forums, community dialogue and media coverage of a growing mental health crisis among Connecticut’s youth, lawmakers last fall formed a bipartisan working group to exchange ideas and develop proposals to be raised during the 2022 legislative session. Three wide-ranging bills have been introduced: Senate Bill 2, which passed the Senate last week and focuses on resources for those in early childhood; Senate Bill 1, which provides services in schools; and House Bill 5001, which cleared the House on Wednesday.

Lawmakers said the House measure sets aside $36.2 million for a variety of programs, new positions and other initiatives.

“Among our youth, we’ve seen increasing cases of anxiety, depression, suicide and suicidal ideation, eating disorders, children lined up in emergency rooms — where they can remain for an average of five days before the next level of care is available, and lengthy waiting lists due to the shortage of providers, programs and or services,” said Rep. Tammy Exum, D-West Hartford, a key backer of the bill. “While there were mental health issues prior to the pandemic, the issues have been exacerbated, and the gaps have been highlighted.”

The bill would require the state Department of Public Health to implement a plan to make license reciprocity possible for out-of-state mental and behavioral health providers, especially those who treat children. The goal of the program is to expand the workforce available to serve Connecticut’s youth.

The proposal would set up a grant program for local and regional boards of education to hire additional school mental health specialists. It also would establish a grant program for school boards and operators of youth camps or other summer activities to help cover mental health services for students.

Under the bill, certain health plans would have to offer coverage for two mental health wellness examinations per year performed by a licensed mental health provider and waive the requirement for prior authorization. The measure also mandates that the state health care advocate designate an employee to handle services specific to minors, and launches a peer-to-peer mental health support program.

Emotionally charged discussion on the proposal ran for nearly four hours 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 middle of the pandemic to take her son to Colorado for inpatient services to treat an eating disorder. There were no spots available in Connecticut, she said.

“During the height of the pandemic, we got on a plane and we flew our child to Colorado to leave him in the hands of strangers. … It was life or death. It’s what we had to do,” she said. “When we talk about intensive inpatient programs that also later [lead to] intensive outpatient programs — we don’t have it in the state of Connecticut to the level and extent to which we need it, to help any child who needs it.”

Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, said lawmakers have heard the plight of parents and are responding.

“I belong to a group of parents who discuss what it’s like to parent a child with mental illness,” she said tearfully. “And I didn’t recognize how important it is to have services for parents until I had one mom explain to me that she has PTSD because she literally had to walk into her child’s room and lift him up from where he was hanging from his belt to take him down.”

“This is real. This bill is real. It makes real change. It is transformative,” Linehan said. “Sometimes we use those words when we’re trying to pass a bill. But this is it; this is what this bill really is. It will make a difference in so many lives.”

Rep. William Petit, R-Plainville, called the measure a “good first step.” In the coming years, he said, legislators will have to continue to look for ways to boost the provider network in Connecticut.

“One of the biggest battles we need to fight over the next decade in terms of mental health is providers,” Petit said. “We need to increase the number of providers.”

After the bill was adopted Wednesday, the House chamber burst into applause. The measure now heads to the Senate for final passage.

“We hear all the time that there are all these problems that people feel they can’t overcome. And the last three or four hours of this debate really should send the message that we’ve heard you,” Linehan said. “This bill is about the lived experiences of those who say, ‘Hey, I can’t find someone to treat my kid.’ Well, guess what, we’re working on that long term.”

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