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Three extensive bills targeting children’s mental health win final passage

Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney in the Senate chamber. Looney called the legislation “a recognition that this is an area that has been a crisis in our state for some time.”
Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney in the Senate chamber. Looney called the legislation “a recognition that this is an area that has been a crisis in our state for some time.”

The legislature gave final passage Tuesday to three wide-ranging measures that would expand access to and boost resources for children’s mental health, with some lawmakers calling it the defining issue of Connecticut’s 2022 legislative session.

The Senate approved House Bill 5001, a proposal that focuses on services in the medical sector and in the community. The House passed Senate Bill 1, which features resources for schools, and Senate Bill 2, which concentrates on early childhood interventions. All three now head to the governor’s desk for his signature.

Passage of the bills was a first step toward confronting what lawmakers and health providers have called an escalating crisis in Connecticut and elsewhere.

“There’s a saying: Don’t waste a crisis. Connecticut’s been wasting one crisis after another when it comes to mental health,” said Sen. Derek Slap, a West Hartford Democrat. “Every time a child falls asleep in the emergency department in the hallway because there are no beds, that’s a crisis. Every time a child dies by suicide because they didn’t get the support and help they needed, that’s a crisis. Every time children suffer in their rooms, don’t go to school and don’t function, that’s a crisis. And it’s gotten worse.

“Our children have been suffering for a long, long time, and we’ve been failing. … I think [these bills are] going to shine some light on our children … give them some hope. It’s the most important thing we’re going to do this legislative session.”

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.

Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, called the bills “major signature achievements of this General Assembly session.”

“This is a mobilization and a recognition that this is an area that has been a crisis in our state for some time,” he said. “It is now, finally I think, reaching the level of urgency, the public spotlight, and the mobilization of this General Assembly to deal with it as we should.”

Each piece of legislation tackles different aspects of a sweeping problem.

House Bill 5001 includes 73 sections with a slew of programs and funding. It would make license reciprocity possible for out-of-state providers, especially those who treat children. It also would set up a grant program for local and regional boards of education to hire additional school mental health specialists, and create a second grant program for school boards and operators of youth camps 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.

The proposal won unanimous final passage in the Senate with a vote of 36-0.

Senate Bill 1, which would bolster mental health programs in schools, increase wages for child care workers and create a minority teacher scholarship fund, among other priorities, passed the House Tuesday by a vote of 138-10.

The measure would set aside $10 million for grants to expand services at school-based health centers. It also would create a grant program to help boards of education hire and retain social workers, nurses, psychologists and counselors in schools.

The bill would devote $70 million to salary enhancement grants for child care and early childhood education workers, and increase the number of infant and toddler slots in child development centers across the state to 2,800 spaces, up from 1,500.

Under the proposal, school boards would be provided with information about how to acquire no-cost opioid antagonists like Narcan, and school employees would be trained on its proper usage and handling. The measure would allow pharmacists and prescribing providers to dispense Narcan to school boards, and require schools to designate one employee to administer the medication in the event that a school nurse is unavailable.

The bill also directs the state Department of Education to devise strategies for streamlining and improving pathways to teacher certification, and it would create a task force to address teacher shortage and retention. One million dollars would be set aside for a new minority teacher candidate scholarship program.

The proposal also would launch a task force to help combat ableism, the discrimination or social prejudice against people with disabilities, in school settings.

Senate Bill 2, which includes 46 sections targeting a range of initiatives, cleared the House with a vote of 129-17. Sixteen Republicans and one Democrat opposed the measure. Rep. Catherine Abercrombie, D-Meriden, was the lone Democrat voting against it.

The bill would expand access to mobile crisis centers throughout the state, making them available seven days a week, 24 hours a day. It also would set up a fund to address social determinants of mental health, the factors — such as housing instability, a lack of access to healthy food, poverty, racial discrimination, unemployment and adverse early life experiences — that influence a person’s mental health. Families dealing with these problems could apply for financial support.

The proposal would also require Connecticut’s commissioner of public health to convene a working group to study methods of recruiting and retaining psychiatric and behavioral health providers, the prospect of a loan forgiveness program for people who go into the field, and the effect of the health insurance landscape on limiting access to care, among other issues. The group must report its findings to the state no later than Jan. 1, 2024.

Under the bill, the state would partner with the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education to conduct a study of the impact of social media and mobile phone usage on the mental health of K-12 students. The study will examine children in elementary school, middle school and high school. The authors will submit their report to the state by Jan. 1, 2024.

During the House debate of Senate Bill 2, some Republicans took issue with different sections of the proposal. Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, R-Wolcott, questioned the value of using money from the American Rescue Plan Act to fund certain initiatives. The bills include financial backing from the state’s general fund and from ARPA money.

“I think things are a little – I’m going to be blunt, if I may – messed up,” she said. “We put a plan together … and we’re utilizing ARPA money. Are we not thinking of what the consequences are going to be when that money runs out? Are we not sitting here thinking that, you know what, two years from now or a year from now, we don’t have that funding anymore? We are going to have to figure it out.”

Proponents of the bills have said that 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.

Others voiced support for the measure, calling it one of the major mental health bills of the session.

“It’s so critical that we keep reminding that we have so many mental health needs with our students,” said Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-Fairfield. “And this is a bill that attempts to look at those and help in the best way we can. … I think it’s going to be doing some really good work.”

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