(Photo: Megan Verlee/CPR News)
Gun control bills got a lot of attention at the legislature this year, but attempts to keep firearms out of the hands of people who are dangerously mentally ill failed. They were part of a package of legislation Governor Hickenlooper pushed as a response to the Aurora theatre shooting last July.

Most of the Governor’s mental health plan did pass, though, and CPR Health Reporter Eric Whitney says it’s the most significant boost to the state’s mental health system in decades. 

This is a transcript of Eric’s story. 

Reporter: Governor John Hickenlooper started working on his plan soon after the Aurora theater shooting in July. He scheduled a press conference to announce it in December, not knowing the date would fall just days after another tragedy, the mass killing in Newtown, Conn.

Hickenlooper: We really have a duty after tragedies that we need to look at what we do and how we act. How we help each other. 

Reporter: The Governor unveiled a five point plan that included setting up a mental health and firearms task force. It would meet in between legislative sessions and bring advice back to lawmakers.. That bill, sponsored in the House by Denver Democrat Beth McCann, died in committee when a member of her own party declined to support it.  She said that means the state missed a good opportunity.

McCann: For us to have law enforcement, and those who treat those people with mental illness, and family members, and people who’ve been through the system, and gun advocates in one room, where we could really have a good discussion. I think that would’ve been very valuable, and I’m disappointed that didn’t pass. 

Reporter: McCann also brought a bill to re-write Colorado’s civil commitment laws. They govern when a mentally ill or intoxicated person can be taken into custody to protect themselves or the public. A person with a civil commitment on their record can also be denied the right to buy a gun.

That bill looked doomed, too, so Representative McCann re-wrote it to set up a special committee to study the issue. The bill passed in that form.

Governor Hickenlooper:

Hickenlooper: I’m not going to deny it, we were disappointed we didn’t get the civil commitment done. You don’t win them all.

Reporter: But the Governor did win a lot. Most of the rest of his mental health package did pass this year, and mental health advocates like Moe Keller are very happy it did.

Keller: It was one of the best legislative sessions that I can recall in the past two decades. 

Reporter: Keller works for the non-profit Mental Health America Colorado. She says the state’s recent history has been one of cutting community support services for the mentally ill. This year, the pendulum swung the other way.

Keller: We have a substantial amount of money, $28 million that had been requested by the Governor and expanded upon by the legislature to provide those supports in community.

Reporter: A lot of that money will go toward creating Colorado’s first-ever statewide mental health crisis response system. That includes a 24 hour hotline, and five new mental health drop-in centers. Those centers will be open, 24 hours a day and offer help from mental health professionals regardless of the ability to pay.

Most: Right now, most people come to an emergency room, who are in a mental health crisis. For a number of reasons, it’s not the best place for people who are in a mental health crisis.

Reporter: That’s Glen Most, a psychologist who runs the mental health side of Exempla Lutheran hospital in Wheat Ridge. 

People who’ve taken loved ones to emergency rooms in Colorado for help with mental health crises agree with Most. A woman we’re not identifying because of concerns for her children’s safety took her son to a suburban Denver E-R a few weeks ago when he started acting violently. She didn’t know what else to do.

Woman: I wanted him to get help, to get diagnosis, to get whatever is necessary to help him. They gave him nothing, nothing, nothing.

Reporter: Mental health professionals like Glen Most say the new system will help people just like that mother. 

Most: It’s been done before, it’s been proven to work.

Reporter: Most knows because he was part of a big research effort about six years ago.

Most: Hospitals in the area, mental health centers,  law enforcement, and this very diverse group of people in the community all came together to look at, what could we do differently and better for the mentally ill population.

Reporter: What they came up with was a set of reforms that looks a lot like what Governor Hickenlooper called for in December, and what the state legislature just passed.  Most says there was broad agreement on what Colorado needed, but then the economy crashed and no one could figure out how to fund new services. Now, he says, with money the state legislature has allocated, plus additional funding from the federal health care law popularly known as Obamacare, Colorado has the chance to vastly increase services for the mentally ill. Advocates say the state will still have significant unmet mental health needs. But, they add, the new law is a welcome investment in a system that’s seen nothing but cuts for many years.