Colorado’s legislative Republicans and Democrats took action this week to pass two bills that could move us in the direction of addressing a widespread and tragic mental health care crisis.

“In short, the measures aim to ensure that those needing mental health care aren’t left to overburdened jails and forgotten,” explains reporter Conrad Swanson in a Gazette news article.

Gov. Jared Polis plans to sign Senate Bill’s 222 and 223 into law.

The bills grant a wish stated by The Gazette editorial board in a Monday editorial that said: “Find ways to make Colorado a state where the mentally ill get treatment, not prison.”

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Our editorial reiterated concerns raised in an investigative series by The Gazette’s news department. The series highlights shortages in mental health care that leave patients and their families suffering, dead or behind bars.

A 2012 lawsuit by the nonprofit law firm Disability Law Colorado detailed how state government neglects providing adequate treatment for people with mental illnesses. It exposed how the state’s criminal justice system ensnares them, mostly for lack of preventive care.

The Colorado Department of Human Services settled the lawsuit in March with a decree that forces the state to hire a cadre of clinicians, tighten treatment deadlines and shift care for many criminal defendants from state psychiatric hospitals to community-based programs. Failure to obey the decree could generate fines of $10 million a year against the state.

As explained in The Gazette series, the shortage in mental health care has made the Colorado Department of Corrections a de facto caregiver for people who need treatment and cannot find it before getting in trouble. More than 33% of Colorado state prison inmates suffer moderate to critical mental health conditions.

“It is a fair bet preventive care, combined with mental health maintenance and a culture of prevention would keep many of these people out of prison,” our editorial stated.

The two bills move us in the direction of a culture of prevention and care.

As explained by Swanson, SB 222 requires the state give access to beds in mental health institutes in Pueblo and Fort Logan on a basis of need rather than the order in which patients arrive. It also requires the state Department of Human Services to create and implement a safety net program no later than Jan. 1, 2024, focused on providing services for people with severe behavioral health disorders. Plans to increase treatment programs and make annual reports on the department’s progress are required along the way.

The House passed the bill unanimously, showing a rare glimmer of hope Republicans and Democrats can still work together toward the common good of our state.

Swanson explains Senate Bill 223 overhauls the criminal process for those whose mental competency is in question, and requires the Department of Human Services to track their conditions and ensure they get required treatments. The bill passed the House by a 59-4 vote.

In response to growing mental health concerns, Polis in April created the Behavioral Health Task Force to study and recommend more repairs to the broken mental health care system. He wisely supports a proposed ballot measure to raise taxes on cigarettes and nicotine vape products. Revenues would help fund a better and more robust response to the state’s growing problems with substance abuse, which often intersects with behavioral health disorders.

The Legislature this week did right by the mentally ill and those who love them. It is a good start; let’s keep this momentum going and make Colorado a place to get and stay well.

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