Behavioral and mental health care in Colorado is in need of reform

Ensuring that Colorados residents truly have access to mental and behavioral healthcare services has been a commitment of the Primavera Police Department from day one. Even before the pandemic increased the need for behavioral health services in a crisis, we recognized the need to make major changes to our behavioral health system in Colorado. We are committed to addressing the problems and gaps in the behavioral health system and making bold changes to ensure that people get the mental health and substance abuse services they deserve.

In April 2019, Governor Jared Polis created the Behavioral Health Task Force, soliciting honest input on how the state can make real and impactful change. Hundreds of families, county and local government commissioners, including clients, service providers and human rights advocates, have thought about how to improve access to care. The task force developed a detailed plan of action and reform that included the establishment of the Behavioral Health Department, and the expansion of the Behavioral Health Safety Network.

There are many factors that contributed to this crisis, including a shortage of service providers, a lack of transparency and accountability across the system, and flawed payment models. However we got here, we all take responsibility.

We must change the way we provide and drive behavioral health services, and we are working to do so through the new administration. In addition, the Governor and General Assembly directed $550 million for behavioral health care, and allocated $100 million during the 2021 legislative session to coordinate school care and services, treatment of children and youth with high needs, and a number of other services and programs.

How the other $450 million will be spent is being discussed by an interim legislative committee, which will finalize its recommendations for the 2022 legislative session. We both sit on that committee and hope that its recommendations will be transformative, address system gaps and provide us with a strong foundation for building a highly functional behavioral health system. Coloradans deserve no less.

A real investment in behavioral health is long overdue. We are taking a new approach: one that requires all stakeholders to work together on an unprecedented level to ensure that the behavioral health system is highly functional, transparent and accountable. Collaboration and mutual respect are essential to ensuring that we provide care to Coloradans, especially those who need it most.

We must hold ourselves and our providers accountable, update our data and reporting systems, improve access and technology, change state contracting while setting new standards with providers, and create sustainable funding for programs that serve all Colorados in need.

Some of these changes are already underway; For example, under Medicaid, which covers one in four Coloradans, we’ve expanded drug use coverage, added 1,500 behavioral health providers to improve access to care over the past 18 months, and increased Medicaid’s behavioral health budget by 400 million dollars since 2018—as a result, the total behavioral health budget for Medicaid will exceed $1 billion next year.

We need systems and support that prevent people from “falling through the cracks” that recognize the whole person so that all Colorados can recover and thrive in their communities. Planned system reforms in progress include a regional approach to care coordination to help people navigate and access behavioral health care in programs that track and measure outcomes.

Through all of these reforms, upgrading workers on the front lines of behavioral health is a top priority. Expanding workforce opportunities is a key pillar of transformation and investment in behavioral health. We know that workers need better salaries, and we need more of them. Colorado is investing $18 million in workforce development so we can grow this much-needed workforce. The program will increase the ability and capacity of service providers to treat individuals, including young people, with severe behavioral health disorders. Governor Polis also submitted a request to the Behavioral Health Transformation Task Force for a $20 million loan forgiveness for behavioral health providers.

For far too long, Colorrad residents have struggled to get the care they so desperately need. We are confident that this path, formed alongside committed and mission-oriented consumers, patients and family members, service providers and advocates, will create an effective system.

Michelle Barnes is the executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services. Kim Beamstever is the executive director of the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Finance.

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