Mental Health
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A series by The Gazette's news department details a critical shortage of mental health resources in Colorado.

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Today’s Perspective feature details a Colorado legislative session gone wild, with the controlling party imposing a radical left-wing agenda designed to change everything from sex education, to the cars we drive, to the way we elect future presidents.

Our complaint raises an obvious question: Got any better ideas?

Yes. Address the mental health care crisis.

The first in an investigative mental health series by Gazette reporters Stephanie Earls and Jakob Rodgers documents widespread and tragic suffering among hundreds of thousands of mentally ill residents and the people who love them. Colorado residents rank among the most mentally ill in the country, the problem is getting worse, and only a relative few get help. (Click here for today's edition of the mental health series).

PERSPECTIVE: Extremists take on Colorado

Key points among The Gazette's findings:

• About 382,000 Coloradans with mental health problems cann not get care they needed, based on a 2017 Health Access Survey by the Colorado Health Institute.

• Another 67,000 can not get substance abuse treatment, even though addiction and mental illness frequently cross paths.

• Colorado loses about 560 residents a year to opioid deaths, many of which involve people trying to cope with untreated mental illnesses.

• Half of Colorado’s residents live in areas with a dearth of mental health providers; 49 of 64 counties lack even one mental health care bed.

• Colorado has the ninth highest suicide rate, which has continued a steady rise for 15 years straight. Mental illness is a leading cause of suicide.

• Suicide rates have nearly doubled in Colorado Springs and the rest of El Paso County during the past decade, giving the region more deaths by suicide than homicides and car crashes combined.

• Emergency rooms have emerged as the primary caregiver for people in mental health crisis.

• The health care system routinely sends pediatric mental health patients out of state for care.

• The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates a shortage of 131 mental health practitioners in Colorado, which many in the health care community considers a significantly low estimate.

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.

These troubling statistics are not caused by the uninsured, whom politicians love to talk about and pander to. We have all these problems despite Colorado expanding Medicaid to drive the rate of uninsured residents below seven percent. 

Medicaid policies do not cover any significant amount of most mental health care treatments. Neither do most policies issued in the private market.

This goes directly to what The Gazette Editorial Board has highlighted for years: Coverage is not care. Politicians easily hand out paper insurance policies that feel like gifts, win votes and help people sleep at night. Sadly, these policies typically do not pay for much unless a consumer has significant personal resources to cover the costs of unqualifying services, co-pays and deductibles.

A paper insurance policy simply does not produce the psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, nurses, assistants, facilities and beds needed to care for the mentally ill. We could pass a law ordering Medicaid to pay the full cost of treating a person with depression or schizophrenia. In doing so, we would remain at a loss of treatment providers — due to a shortage that makes the services soo expensive. We would continue putting sick people behind bars rather than in hospitals or clinics. Medicare or insurance cannot buy services of a local psychiatrist who does not exist.

One day after our series began April 6, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis announced a new Behavioral Health Task Force to overhaul Colorado’s dysfunctional mental health care system. It is a good first step, just like the proposed nicotine tax referendum to help fund mental health care.

Meanwhile, Democratic legislative leaders — who control both chambers — did almost nothing to address this problem over four months of daily meetings they would not miss for a deadly blizzard or two high holidays.

Instead of finding solutions to the mental health crisis, they worried about more sexy stuff: Subsidies and charging stations for rich people in Tesla battery cars, powered mostly by fossile fuels; regulatory gifts for Big Marijuana; a regional Green New Deal; voting rights for felons; super-woke sex-education in schools… those types of things.

A legislature responsive to a real issue affecting their constituents would introduce and scrutinize ideas to incentivize medical entrepreneurs to create psychiatric clinics. It would find ways for the University of Colorado to produce more psychiatrists and therapists to work in state. It would examine which regulatory hurdles contribute to the shortage of mental health care. It would legislate to focus more resources of the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing on mental health.

For more ideas, legislators should see the portion of our mental health care series in today's paper that focuses entirely on possible solutions.

No one expects legislators to fix this problem in one four-month session. They could and should do considerably more to move us in the right direction. By simply making this topic a priority, the legislature could enhance awareness of the problem.

Legislators, wake up before the 2020 legislative session convenes eight months from now. Make this the spotlighted cause. Work with the governor’s new task force. Find ways to make Colorado a state where the mentally ill get treatment, not prison. (See Perspective feature)

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