Lawmakers, state leaders and mental health professionals who make up Colorado’s Behavioral Health Task Force convened for the first time July 1 to explore solutions to the state’s high suicide rate and barriers to mental health care.
“I think it’s fair to say we have a broken system and we have an opportunity to fix that as a task force,” said Michelle Barnes, chairwoman of the task force and executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services. “The will to make a difference starts at the top.”
The task force, with the help of three subcommittees, is working to develop a “Behavioral Health Blueprint” for the state to improve cracks in the behavioral health system.
The kickoff meeting, held as a roundtable discussion in a packed conference room at the Douglas County Department of Human Services building in Castle Rock, with members of the public in attendance, began with impassioned introductions. The state received roughly 500 applications for the committees, which each have about 25 members.
The task force’s executive committee is made up of six members: Barnes, Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera, Douglas County Deputy Manager Barbara Drake, Colorado Insurance Commissioner Michael Conway, Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing Executive Director Kim Bimestefer and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Executive Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan.
“It’s really important that we get this right,” said Hunsaker Ryan, who previously worked as a commissioner in Eagle County, where the suicide rate is historically high.
On April 8, Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order directing the Colorado Department of Human Services to head the behavioral task force.
Annually, Colorado pledges more than $1 billion to its behavioral health system, but the state ranked 43rd on Mental Health America’s 2018 mental health index, which is based on 15 criteria, including mental illness prevalence and access to care. Colorado is 10th in the country for the highest suicide rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The three subcommittees under the task force are each charged with finding solutions to different challenges in the state’s behavioral health system.
The goal of the State Safety Net Subcommittee is to ensure all Coloradans have access to care in their communities, regardless of “acuity level, ability to pay, or co-occurring disabilities,” according to state’s website. The Children’s Behavioral Health Subcommittee is focused on better outcomes for children. The Long-Term Competency Subcommittee is tasked with developing a comprehensive plan for individuals in the criminal justice system, along with solutions to increase community intervention.
“I deal with people every day who think the response to every problem is more prison beds,” said Dean Williams, executive director of Colorado’s Department of Corrections. “There is an opportunity to do some big work in this state.”
The task force and subcommittees will meet periodically over the next year at various locations. Meeting times will be listed at www.colorado.gov/pacific/cdhs/colorado-behavioral-health-task-force. Representatives from the Farley Health Policy Center, named after Dr. Eugene Shedden Farley, a leader in the first generation of American family physicians, will facilitate the meetings.
Members of the task force stress the importance of their mission and the difference they plan on making.
Barnes described her vision as a “complete overhaul” of the current system.
“Being a little bit better doesn’t work for people who need these services,” she said. “We have to be bold and creative to make this happen.”