Imagine you're diagnosed with high blood pressure at your annual physical, but instead of proposing treatment, your doctor tells you to make an appointment when you have a heart attack.
That's the way the health care system deals with mental health, state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet told a legislative committee Wednesday.
"We are going from crisis to crisis to crisis. Unless you are ill, you don't go see a behavioral health specialist — that's something only crazy people do," the Commerce City Democrat said.
She was introducing landmark legislation she's sponsoring to require health insurance companies to cover an annual mental health wellness examination free of charge in Colorado, the same way annual physicals are covered.
Saying she hopes the requirement leads to "a wholesale cultural shift in the way that we take care of our behavioral health care needs," Michaelson Jenet told fellow lawmakers that similar programs on smaller scales in other states have demonstrated significant cost savings and reductions in incidents of mental illnesses because they were caught early.
The House Health & Insurance Committee passed House Bill 1086 unanimously, moving it to the Appropriations Committee to consider an estimated $13,000 in annual costs to administer the requirement.
If signed into law, the bill would take effect Jan. 1, 2022, and would apply to the estimated 1 million Coloradans who are covered by employer-provided health insurance and through the individual health insurance marketplace.
No other state imposes the requirement on insurance carriers.
There's a crying need for earlier mental health treatment, numerous witnesses told the panel, citing a 2017 federal study that found the state ranked ninth in the country in suicides and a 2019 survey that found more than 750,000 Coloradans couldn't get needed mental health services.
"We have a law that says your behavioral health care needs to be equal to your physical health care," Michaelson Jenet said. "If taking care of your physical health care means we have preventative access, then we ought to have preventative access for behavioral health care."
Rebecca Turner told lawmakers that she wished the requirement had been in place when she was younger, before psychotic episodes forced her to drop out of college and led to addiction issues that made it difficult to hold a job.
"There were signs that pointed to me developing an issue, but there was no one around to identify and help me treat my illness," she said. "I had no idea what was happening to me and could not begin to communicate how I felt."
Now, she said, she's sober, back in school and getting back on her feet.
"But I could have used some help so much sooner," she said. "I think — rather, know — that House Bill 1086 could make a profound difference. It will surely save lives, along with making the quality of life better for so many, many people."
The bill's other prime sponsor in the House, state Rep. Colin Larson, a Littleton Republican, said hospitals and health insurance companies support the concept "because they know in the end this is going to save money to the system and provide better health care outcomes."
Larson acknowledged that the state's behavioral and mental health care system currently lacks the capacity to handle the mandate due to provider shortages but said he expects the industry will catch up in the time it takes for Coloradans to become aware of the benefit and begin to take advantage of it.
"We are still trying to get over the stigma associated with mental health issues," Larson said. "It's going to take time for people to get comfortable admitting they need to see somebody, but as awareness and acceptance grows, we will see that materialize."
Added Larson: "We are so far behind the eight ball in acceptance of mental health issues. This will start that conversation."
No one testified in opposition to the bill.