With nearly 27% of adults in Connecticut reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression during the pandemic, the Senate Republican minority identified mental health Wednesday as legislative a priority in 2022.
Holding little more than one third of the seats in the Senate, the GOP is hardly in a position to drive the agenda, but a Democratic co-chair of the Public Health Committee welcomed the Republican push.
An 11-page paper issued by the Republicans was less of a legislative proposal and more of an overview of a widely acknowledged problem and outline of possible approaches to legislation yet to be drafted.
They offered four broad bullet points: Increase access to mental health care; support the mental health workforce; address the “youth mental health crisis” and improve screening and support for maternal mental health.
Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, had no estimate of the spending increase that would be required to address the needs. The non-partisan Office of Financial Analysis cannot estimate cost without fully drafted legislation.
“What we’re going to be doing is putting together the bills, putting them through OFA, get those fiscal notes, and we’ll see what the cost is,” Kelly said.
Coming exactly two weeks before the start of the 2022 legislative session and release of Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposed adjustments to the second year of the biennial budget, the news conference served politics as well as policy.
“I’m the leader of the Republican caucus,” Kelly said. “I think the Republican Party has good ideas. I think we’re putting forward alternatives to what the majority is doing. I think we’re demonstrating a better way today … on mental health.”
The GOP was asserting a measure of ownership on the issue in an election year while acknowledging that addressing mental health rarely has been a partisan issue in the General Assembly, and Republicans will need “friends” for passage.
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, the co-chair of the Public Health Committee, said he saw nothing groundbreaking in the GOP outline.
“There really wasn’t anything on their list that isn’t an idea already before our committee, the children’s committee or the insurance committee,” Steinberg said.
Steinberg said that was not a criticism. The GOP-supported push is constructive and only can be helpful, he said.
Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, the ranking Republican on the Public Health Committee, said she and Steinberg already have talked about some of the GOP ideas.
Somers said the needs are many and immediate.
“We had a mental health crisis here in the state of Connecticut before COVID reared its ugly head,” Somers said. “We have a disjointed, disconnected system of care. There’s no continuum of care. People search for days to try to find help.”
The issues are financial but also turn on staffing shortages that require more than money.
The non-profit providers that are a central element of outpatient mental health care are suffering from low Medicaid reimbursement rates that make their salaries uncompetitive, costing them staff, said Michael Patota, the president and chief executive officer of the The Child & Family Guidance Center in Bridgeport.
Asked if staffing shortages or resources were his biggest challenge, Patota said, “Many of our staff are leaving to go to higher-paid positions. So in my mind, they’re inseparable.”
The state has hundreds of vacant positions that are funded but go unfilled for an absence of qualified applicants.
Somers said one partial solution would be to allow HUSKY, the state Medicaid program for children, to reimbursement treatment by social workers who have master’s degrees but who have not yet qualified as licensed clinical social workers,
Some private insurers will reimburse for care by master’s-degree staff, so long as they are under the supervision of a licensed clinician, Somers said.
Antonia Edwards, who has complained of being unable to find care for a troubled granddaughter who killed her grandson nearly two years ago, said the state must act.
“My grandson died on my watch because there was no services available or due to the racial disparities and implicit biases,” said Edwards, who is Black. “We were discriminated against from getting services.”