In response to a deepening crisis of children’s behavioral health in Connecticut, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers Friday unveiled a comprehensive bill aimed at expanding support for mental health care and enhancing preventative services.
“When it comes to children and it comes to youth, there is no political label, there is no political party,” House Speaker Matt Ritter, a Hartford Democrat, said, touting the bipartisan nature of the legislation. “We all care very, very deeply about our children and the children in this state and their futures.”
Overburdened mental health providers have sounded the alarm about widespread staffing shortages in recent months and on Friday, lawmakers centered on the importance of workforce development. The proposed bill, House Bill 5001, would provide licensure reciprocity for out-of-state mental health processionals, offer loan forgiveness and invest in other efforts to increase staffing, recruitment and retention in the field, said state Rep. Liz Linehan, a Cheshire Democrat and House chair of the Committee on Children.
“The big issue, which is a long-term issue — five, 10, 15 years — is to increase the number of providers,” said state Rep. William Petit, a Plainville Republican and physician. “We need more psychiatrists, psychologists, psych APRNs, PAs, social workers — all the folks that help care for people with mental health problems.”
State Rep. Tammy Exum, a West Hartford Democrat and deputy majority leader, emphasized that the proposed bill represents not merely a “Band-Aid,” but rather a “comprehensive plan” to address the crisis, including by intervening to support children before they might require hospitalization for behavioral health issues.
The bill would fund the staffing of mental health clinicians in school settings, create evidence-based peer support programs in schools and tackle insurance issues, including by eliminating prior authorization for in-patient care. Increased support for pediatricians — by expanding Access Health CT and enabling pediatricians to receive continuing education related to children’s mental health — is also part of the proposed legislation, as is a requirement that state officials study reimbursement rate parity in mental health care.
State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a Westport Democrat, said that the General Assembly’s attention on children’s mental health care was “long overdue.” He stressed that their legislative effort must create a “new long-term paradigm” for supporting behavioral health in Connecticut and not rely solely on temporary federal funds, including those from the American Rescue Plan Act.
The overall price tag of the legislation will be determined through the legislative process, according to Linehan, who added, “I don’t want to talk about spending on children’s mental health; I want to talk about investing in children’s mental health.”
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Howard Sovronsky, the chief behavioral health officer of Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, said during the press conference Friday that in recent years, the hospital has seen a “dramatic increase” not only in the number of children seeking urgent behavioral health care, but also the severity of their illnesses.
He noted that efforts have been made to increase the number of psychiatric beds in the state, but that roots of the crisis run much deeper.
“The problem is not beds,” he said. “The problem is throughput — it’s the flow of patients throughout the system — and that kids get backed up at various points because of the lack of access, and that creates the urgency for more beds. But the beds is just one piece of a larger fix that needs to be addressed. And frankly, this bill attempts to address many of those areas of pressure points.”
Exum described having had heartbreaking conversations with parents whose children needed urgent mental health support but could not obtain it.
“When they were given an opportunity to meet with a provider, sometimes they were told it might be three months or more,” she said. “Three months is a really long time when your child is in crisis and your family is in crisis, and you don’t know how you’ll get through three days.”
Eliza Fawcett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.