Calling children’s mental health the top priority for their chamber this session, House Democrats and Republicans gathered on Friday to unveil a sweeping bill that addresses the health crisis in schools, medical facilities and the community.
House Bill 5001, an Act Concerning Children’s Mental Health, includes initiatives to improve and expand mental health workforce development, services in schools, insurance coverage, resources for behavioral health providers and programs, and systems currently in place.
“This is certainly an opportunity for all of us to come together and really address a long-standing need and address it in a systemic way,” said House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, during a press conference. “So that when we all move on from this place, we have a system that adequately supports the needs of our kids, the needs of our families, the needs of our adults.”
The omnibus bill will tackle insurance coverage for children with mental health concerns.
Some of the proposals would require health insurers to cover intensive services for children’s behavioral health treatment and cover collaborative care for behavioral health. One provision in the bill would allow out-of-state providers to offer services in Connecticut.
“I also understand what it’s like if you get there and you find your insurance is not being accepted, or if you get there and you find that you have to pay out of pocket and you cannot afford to do so,” said Rep. Tammy Exum, D-West Hartford, adding that lawmakers have been working with stakeholders since November to understand what providers, agencies and parents are experiencing.
“It’s all important in order to build a comprehensive plan that will address the needs of children throughout the state and not something that is a Band-Aid,” she said.
The bill would also provide resources to improve behavioral health workforce development. One of the proposals establishes a student loan forgiveness program for children’s mental health workers.
Another sets up a grant program to hire youth psychiatrists and retain child psychiatrists currently employed in the state.
“We need more psychiatrists, psychologists … social workers, all the folks that help care for people with mental health problems,” said Rep. William Petit, R-Plainville. “This bill begins to address some of it in terms of loan forgiveness, in terms of licensing reciprocity, in terms of scholarships, etc. But I think we need to do more. This is a nationwide issue, and we’re competing with the surrounding states for the same talent. So we need to think outside the box.”
Specifics on how much money would be committed to each provision in the bill were still being debated. Lawmakers said they would use public input to shape each initiative. A public hearing is planned for Feb. 25.
“A lot of spending that’s happening in this bill right now is coming from the [American Rescue Plan Act] money,” said Rep. Tammy Nuccio, R-Tolland. “ARPA money came to our state because of COVID. COVID has really exaggerated what we’ve seen, what we know is coming as a mental health crisis. It’s made it 10 times worse. So either we make this a priority, or we don’t.”
Along with increasing the workforce, legislators want to improve resources in schools and the community.
Tucked into the 103-page proposal is a plan to create and fund a new position in the State Department of Education titled “Trauma Coordinator.” This person would oversee trauma training and practices for teachers, administrators, coaches, school resource officers and all staff in school districts throughout the state.
The measure also supports mental health efforts in schools by establishing two grant programs. One is dedicated to the hiring of school social workers and psychologists, while the other will allow districts to come up with their own programs for delivering school-based mental health services to children.
“When we say grants, I want everyone to keep in mind that it’s not just we’re passing it out and go ahead and do with it what you want,” said Children’s Committee Co-Chair Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire. “We are requiring that districts tell us what they’re spending it on, why they’re doing it, and how they foresee this working out in the long term.”
During Friday’s press conference, Connecticut Children’s Medical Center’s Chief Behavioral Health Officer Howard Sovronsky said the bill addresses the immediate and long-term needs of children in the state.
Although the system needed improvements before the pandemic, health providers have seen a dramatic increase in kids seeking emergency psychiatric care over the last two years, he said. Connecticut Children’s has seen an increase in the severity of illnesses being presented in kids as well as a growing number of children who are seeking help for the first time.
Sovronsky urged lawmakers to measure the progress and impact of the initiatives.
“While the pandemic infection numbers might be dropping, we firmly believe that emotional mental health impact on children and families will be here for quite some time,” he said. “Though we talk about long-haul illness related to COVID, it equates equally with the mental health impact that it’s had on children.”
Earlier this week, Senate Democrats also rolled out legislation aimed at addressing children’s mental health. Their bill would increase funding for social workers in schools, provide Narcan training for school nurses and teachers and deliver Narcan to school districts, and offer mental health training to coaches of youth sports.
The legislation would also boost minority teacher recruitment, expand school-based health centers, cut special education costs for towns and shift start times at Connecticut high schools to later in the day, allowing for “a greater chance to get the recommended at least eight hours of sleep and reduce chances of health risks.”
Linehan said that while each chamber has released its own lofty mental health bill, the measures are “separate and distinct.” There is no plan to merge the concepts; lawmakers hope to pass both bills.
“I don’t see them as competition,” Linehan said. “As everything is coming together, it’s going to be like a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces fit perfectly. And together, this will be a comprehensive plan for the kids in Connecticut.
“Mental health is a priority for every member of this legislature.”