Mental Health Colorado today endorsed legislation that would alleviate the strain on jails and other institutions by ensuring the state’s community behavioral health safety net system adequately serves the needs of all Coloradans. SB19-222 would establish safeguards so that those with serious mental health and substance use disorders, including co-occurring conditions, cannot be refused care.
The bill represents a critical step in addressing Colorado’s longstanding competency restoration crisis, which may cost state taxpayers millions of dollars in fines. Without access to medication and other vital services, people with behavioral health disorders often deteriorate behind bars and accumulate additional criminal charges due to their symptoms. The bill aims to prevent those with serious behavioral health disorders from becoming involved with the criminal justice system in the first place.
“We as a state have failed these individuals long before they had a competency restoration ordered,” Mental Health Colorado State Policy Director Lauren Snyder said. “Mental health is the only condition where we wait until a person is at Stage 4 to treat it—and even then, we’re more likely to call law enforcement when that person is in crisis.”
Sponsored by Sens. Pete Lee and Tammy Story and Reps. Lois Landgraf and Daneya Esgar, the bipartisan legislation will also bring much-needed equity to residents in rural communities. Under an antiquated allocation system, Colorado’s taxpayer-funded civil psychiatric beds are only accessible to residents in the Denver metro area. The bill would revise admission criteria so that admissions are based on an individual’s clinical needs—and not where they live or what kind of health insurance they have.
“The competency restoration crisis is a complex problem and the solution requires extensive system change,” said Nancy VanDeMark, interim president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado. “While this measure is just a part of the equation, it will provide necessary systemic improvements to address the urgent needs of people with serious mental health or substance use disorders and help them avoid involvement with law enforcement. That will not only lead to better outcomes for those individuals, but also for our county jails that currently function as the safety net system for people with behavioral health disorders.”
The legislation directs state officials to work alongside members of law enforcement, counties and community advocates to create a behavioral health safety net system, to be implemented by 2024, that will not turn away individuals who are hard to serve.