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A group of Democratic and Republican state lawmakers on Friday unveiled the beginnings of what they pledged will be major overhaul of mental health services for children in Connecticut, an issue some repeatedly called a “crisis” that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The roughly 100-page bill being offered by the House of Representatives legislators, all members of a bipartisan working group that began meeting in November, is one of several proposals to improve mental health care up for consideration this session, including those from Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont and the state Senate caucuses.

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, predicted the multiple bills will eventually be morphed into one bipartisan piece of legislation that addresses everything from expanding the depleted ranks of mental health workers through student loan forgiveness and other programs to creating peer support programs in schools.

“It’s not a rivalry. It’s not a competition of bills or ideas, but rather it shows that everybody in this building believes this is an opportunity for us to make major changes in the way we treat mental health for our children,” Ritter said of the dueling proposals.

“This should be and must be a bipartisan piece of legislation. Historic changes do not happen often when it is one sided,” he said. “We will have our disagreements. We will have votes that go one way or the other. But this is an opportunity to bring people together and show the state and show the country this is what happens when folks work together.”

The General Assembly’s Public Health Committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing Feb. 25 to hear testimony on the bills, which address a wide range of issues including funding for more mobile crisis units, making telehealth services permanent, expanding the types of mental health treatment options for children and their families, and funding for more in-school social workers and psychiatrists. In some cases, the proposals call for initially using federal COVID relief money to kick-start the initiatives.

There are also proposals that address the increased demand for mental health services for adults as well.

“This is a start,” said Rep. William Petit, R-Plainville, a physician, of the bill unveiled Friday. “I think the public hearing process is going to be critical to get input from providers, people on the front lines, of what needs to be tweaked, what needs to be added to.”

He recalled Friday how getting a patient the mental health care they need is “one of the toughest jobs” he has faced as a doctor.

Like many states, Connecticut faces a shortage of all kinds of behavioral health workers. According to researchers at the Kaiser Family Foundation, the percent of the need for mental health professionals in Connecticut that was met as of Sept. 30, 2021, was 14.9%, while the national percent of need met was 28.1%.

“This is a nation wide issue and we’re competing with the surrounding states for the same talent,” Petit said. “So we need to think outside the box.”

Howard Sovronsky, chief behavioral health officer at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford, whose organization has seen a spike in demand for mental health services throughout the pandemic, acknowledged there are no “quick fixes” to such challenges. But he praised the House bill unveiled Friday for addressing both immediate and long-term needs of children living in both urban and rural communities.

“This is historic,” Sovronsky said of the bipartisan legislation. “Never before has our state come together to find ways of improving the wide range of issues affecting children and families and their emotional health.”

 

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By Betty C. Giordano

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