Colorado bill would give children free mental health services during the pandemic

The Colorado state legislature is working to give children free access to mental health care to help them cope with the mental ramifications of the Covid-19 pandemic.

HB21-1258, introduced in the House on April 6, seeks to create a temporary program that would provide minors with three free sessions with a mental health professional. The bipartisan bill allocates $9 million to reimburse providers for these visits, which may be in person or virtual.

The bill acknowledges the pandemic put “extraordinary stress” on young Coloradans “who have experienced enormous disruptions to school, social activities, and support networks, resulting in increased isolation and, in many cases, new or exacerbated instability, particularly as a result of a parent’s loss of employment or stable housing.”

“Since the pandemic began, the Colorado crisis services hotline has experienced a thirty percent increase in calls and texts, and Children’s Hospital Colorado has seen a ten percent increase in the number of kids who visit the psychiatric emergency department due to thoughts of suicide,” the bill says.

Before the pandemic, Colorado ranked in the bottom half of states for prevalence of mental illness and access to care, according to the bill.

The bill says “recovery from the pandemic will depend on youth having access to mental health support, regardless of their ability to pay for it.”

The bill requires the state to create a portal by May 31 for children to sign up for services and get screened to see whether they would benefit from the support. The portal would also connect people with providers covered by their insurance so children could continue to get help after the three free sessions.

The program would run until June 2022 under the proposal.

“We know that kids who are getting the support that they need are healthier and more successful at school,” state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet told The Colorado Sun. Michaelson Jenet, a Democrat, is a prime sponsor of the legislation. “If we can get that to every kid in Colorado? Game-changer.”

Before the House can put the bill to a vote, the House Public & Behavioral Health & Human Services Committee plans to discuss it in an April 20 meeting.

There is also work at the national level to address the pandemic’s impact on Americans’ mental health. Last month, Democratic US Sen. Amy Klobuchar introduced the Covid-19 Mental Health Research Act, which would authorize $100 million annually for five years to the National Institute of Mental Health to fund research on the mental health consequences of the pandemic.

Reps. Paul Tonko, a Democrat, and John Katko, a Republican, introduced the House version of the legislation.

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