Over the last two years, isolation and virtual meetings and schooling have taken a major toll on all of us, particularly though, our young people.
It's become clear even before this session started that children's mental health would be a priority. A number of bills aimed at addressing those issues already have wide bipartisan support.
One of the bills, Senate Bill 2, cleared the Senate almost unanimously. This is seen as a major achievement of this year's legislative session, so far.
NBC Connecticut's Mike Hydeck spoke with Sen. Kevin Kelly (R-Stratford) about the issue. He's the minority leader and ranking member of the Children's Committee.
Mike Hydeck: "So we know this bill is going to address some of the immediate needs of our behavioral health systems. How do you think it's going to make an impact?"
Kevin Kelly: "Well, first and foremost, obviously, as you said at the outset, the pandemic, social isolation, really had an impact on mental health and specifically, children. And one of the things that we've been hearing is that many people are having problems accessing quality care. So what we did was we sat down to look at how to address that issue of access. This will expand access to mobile crisis centers, so that they'll be available. We're also going to start looking at why and how much of these issues came to be. Expand, I'm going to say dealing with sports and psychology, also expand Medicaid payments, because that was another thing that people also thought about, was that even if they found and could access the services, cost became a very big impact. So we looked at that we looked at a lot of the mechanics of how to expand this access, and then looked at many of the things is how to create more staff and to be the pipeline for more individuals going into these fields, creating family care coordinators to be able to work from school-based to community-based and basically meeting people where they are and helping them access the care they need."
Mike Hydeck: "Is that, you think, a strategy to avoid some of the things we saw earlier in the pandemic? Mid-pandemic, we had reports of people literally sitting on the floor in the hallway, in the emergency room at Children's in Hartford, just trying to get a bed. We have a very deep shortage of beds here in Connecticut. Are we trying to maybe stop them from actually needing a bed in the first place? Is that the goal here?"
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Kevin Kelly: "Exactly, Mike. We're looking at all all aspects, you got to first treat what we have. We have a pandemic that exacerbated an existing problem, so we have to meet that need and start to look at how to create access to these programs. Then that means that we have to get more personnel in line and do things like that. But also look at, well, how did we get here? Look at and study issues such as trauma during early life and adverse situations during early life, looking at poverty, food insecurity, housing, and what is the impact on the individual when you experience these conditions. And so we need to start looking at that aspect, too. So it's not just all about finding more access. But let's look at how to stop and having more healthy, and in particular mental health, community and environment."
Mike Hydeck: "And we also know this is not cheap. We're looking at about $25 million, just for SB 2 alone. How are we going to pay for this? Is this easy to fund over time? Or is this going to be a short initiative?"
Kevin Kelly: "Well, right now, we have a situation where we have a budget that's balanced, we're actually in surplus. And I think what we need to do as with all budgets is prioritize needs. I think if one thing we learned over the past few years is that mental health, and we knew this going into the pandemic, I sat on insurance, was ranking on insurance for years. And we saw that there needed to be mental health parity in that area and make sure that carriers were covering mental health services. That was before the pandemic. The pandemic demonstrated that there's a demand, and that there's substantial issues with regards to access and payment. And so we have to make a priority. You've got to make those tough decisions because there are people in need. And when they ask for help, we have to make sure that the services are readily available to make sure they get the help when they ask, because God forbid that somebody asks for help, they don't get it, and then never come back and ask for it again. And that is just a situation that I think most people would find unacceptable."
Mike Hydeck: "Another part of SB 2 is the State Education Department developing a mental health plan for student athletes. I found that interesting because I didn't know that that would be a subsection of this. Can you explain how that discussion started?"
Kevin Kelly: "Well, I think you know what we're looking at and what we focused on were children and juveniles and what they experienced during the pandemic. And one thing that that came through was that many times student-athletes feel the pressure of competition, both put on them from parents and peers, as well as the other athletes and how to work through that pressure is important, because, you know, athletics is important for a child's development. And you want to make sure that it's done in a way that's not only physically healthy, but also mentally healthy. And athletics can put a demand on one's body as well as one mind. And we need to be able to work with our student-athletes to make sure that they are adequately served. And as they go through this, that they understand what these pressure points are and how to deal with them."
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Mike Hydeck: "So as we mentioned, there are two other bills under consideration. Senate Bill no. 1 and House Bill 5001. They're described as companion bills, what does that mean? And how will it work with SB two?"
Kevin Kelly: "Well, the companion bills in that, you know, many of these are going to look more towards, I know in 5001, it's going to look more towards access, and look at things like pre-authorization, how does somebody that may have what they believe to be health insurance is going to cover something like this, but then find impediments that make that coverage seem elusive. And once again, getting back to a comment I made earlier is that when somebody asks for help, you want to make sure they get the proper mental health services in a timely manner. Well, all too many folks, and I know on insurance, we thought that we passed mental health parity, only to find out that many carriers were not covering this, it needed a pre-authorization or the providers were not in network, and that would frustrate the individuals seeking help, the ability to get that help. So we're going to be looking more at those and expanding telehealth services and how to get, you know, current, I'm gonna say licensed and partitioning providers, to be able to do this. We also have to expand propensity, we might look at collaboratives with other states, and making sure that we get the coverage and capability to provide the services for people in need."