Sen. Saud Anwar outlining Senate Bill 2. From right, Sens. Bob Duff, Martin Looney and John Kissel. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

The first of three sweeping bills meant to improve services for children’s mental health in Connecticut cleared the Senate Friday with overwhelming bipartisan support. It now heads to the House.

Senators voted 33-1 in favor of the measure. Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, cast the lone dissenting vote. He did not speak during the debate and, approached afterward, said he would release a statement at a later time explaining his opposition.

The vote was the first step in confronting what lawmakers and health providers have called a growing crisis in Connecticut and elsewhere. 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.

“This bill is a testament to parents who have spoken out and fought for their children’s well-being,” Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, said Friday. “This bill is a testament to their tenacity and to their voice in advocating for their children. I’m very grateful this legislative body has heard those parents, those grandparents, those caregivers, loud and clear.”

The measure, Senate Bill 2, includes 46 different sections targeting a range of initiatives. It 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 social 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 health care access, 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.

“Sometimes one might think that studying an issue in state government is a punt, but in this case it truly is the fact that we want to carefully get our head around one of the most important issues that’s facing our society today, which is the degeneration of mental health, especially among young people,” said Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich.

Other provisions of the bill would:

• Create an equity-based mental health fund for people disconnected from mental health services.

• Require the state Department of Education to develop a mental health plan for student athletes to raise awareness of the resources available. The plan would be made available to local and regional boards of education and posted on the department’s website.

• Establish a new grant program to help pediatrician offices hire social workers. The grants would fund half of the salary of each social worker.

• Allow psychologists to receive Medicaid payments for services provided by social workers and family therapists if those workers are supervised by psychologists.

A fiscal note attached to the final version of the bill backs out some of the substantial costs reflected in an earlier draft of the measure, including a commitment of up to $210 million across two fiscal years for increased child care rates for providers and their employees. It still includes millions, however, for programs outlined in the latest version, such as $3 million to expand mobile crisis services. The bill also allows municipalities to abate up to 100% of the property taxes due for child care centers or child care group homes.There are about 1,400 child care centers and 1,900 family day care homes licensed in Connecticut.

“This is not only an important matter of policy, it is time sensitive,” said Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven. “We really, truly are in a crisis that needs to be addressed right now with much greater resources than we have brought to bear previously.”

Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, said he and others have heard from constituents about difficulty accessing needed mental health resources.

“This bill sends a signal to kids and to their parents in Connecticut that we see you, that we know the last few years have been so hard and that you’re struggling,” he said. “We can’t, in this chamber, fix all of the problems that young people are facing. But we can fix a whole bunch of them.”

Senate Bill 2 is one of three wide ranging mental health proposals under consideration by the legislature this year. The others, Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 5001, address mental health services in schools, in health care facilities and in the community.

Legislative leaders have predicted that all three bills will pass the General Assembly this session with bipartisan support.

“We’ve had full buy-in by all four caucuses on all of these bills,” House Speaker Matthew Ritter said Friday. “They will all pass with overwhelming bipartisan support and be in the budget.”

CT Mirror Capitol Bureau Chief Mark Pazniokas contributed to this story.

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Jenna CarlessoHealth Reporter

Jenna is CT Mirror’s Health Reporter, focusing on health access, affordability, quality, equity and disparities, social determinants of health, health system planning, infrastructure, processes, information systems, and other health policy. Before joining CT Mirror Jenna was a reporter at The Hartford Courant for 10 years, where she consistently won statewide and regional awards. Jenna has a Master of Science degree in Interactive Media from Quinnipiac University and a Bachelor or Arts degree in Journalism from Grand Valley State University.