bill signing mental health

Gov. Jared Polis, in the lower lefthand corner, addresses mental health advocates before he signed two key bills aimed at improving services and preventing suicides, respectively, on April 22, 2021.

Gov. Jared Polis signed two bipartisan mental health bills Thursday aimed at advancing help for Coloradans who are struggling to cope, especially under the threat of the pandemic on their jobs and lives.

One bill creates a new state agency and the other seeks to step in before suicides and deliver meaningful help for individuals and families to make sure there's not another attempt.

"You delivered," Polis said to those assembled online for the bill signing. "Working together, our state is making enormous progress to put patients first, ahead of the bureaucracy."

He thanked "hundreds of people who spent thousands of hours" working on the issue the past two years, which lead to Thursday's bill signing.

"We couldn’t have gotten that far without the commitment to people and teamwork," Polis said.

Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera, the governor's health care czar, said it was asking too much to expect individuals and families in crisis to navigate the maze of at least 10 agencies and 75 programs that are the state's $1.4 billion budget for behavioral health.

Colorado's Behavioral Health Administration, the product of House Bill 1097, will create a one-stop place to coordinate and harness the state's services.

"We need to meet them where they are,” Polis said of those who need help."This bill takes us to the next step.”

The agency is the result of the Colorado Behavioral Health Task Force proposed by Polis and created by the General Assembly in 2019.

The legislation requires the state Department of Human Services to provide a plan to create and set up the Behavioral Health Administration by Nov. 1 to be considered by the legislature Joint Budget Committee by Jan. 30.

The bill was sponsored by Reps. Mary Young. D-Greeley, and Rod Pelton, R-Cheyenne Wells; with Sens. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, and Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs.

House Bill 1119 is aimed at suicide "prevention, intervention and postvention," because it's not enough to step in at the last minute, say its sponsors.

This bill makes a handful of technical updates regarding grants, the powers and duties of the Suicide Prevention Commission and the state health department.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is charged with writing up region-specific plans to help health care providers spot and respond to suicidal thoughts.

The bill passed the Senate unanimously on April 12, after clearing the House on March 29 with six Republicans voting against it.

During the floor debate in the House, members who supported it shared their experiences losing friends and family suicide.

Rep. Richard Holtorf, R-Akron, had received a call from his high school teacher, telling him a student in school in Otis had taken his own life.

"I will tell you this hits home with me, and it's very raw," he told fellow House members. "... This bill is a step in the right direction, but we don't do enough."

He called on Coloradans to support each other, especially in middle school and high school. His mother calls it "going through the tunnel." Not all kids get through it, Holtorf said.

He urged the legislature to dig deeper, saying they need to be 20 feet into finding answers, and now Colorado it's at about 5.

The legislation was sponsored by Reps. Janice Rich, R-Grand Junction, and Lindsey Daugherty, D-Arvada; with Sens. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, and Don Coram, R-Montrose.

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