State Lawmakers Advance Sweeping Legislation To Fund Mental Health and Substance Abuse Programs

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David Zalubowski/AP
A mural to bakers covers the back wall of a shop along Market Street as businesses creak back to life with the easing of restrictions to check the spread of the new coronavirus Wednesday, May 13, 2020, in Denver.

Mental health and substance abuse programs were already in need of more funding when COVID-19 hit, then state lawmakers had to make major cuts to the budget for those programs. A year later, the legislature is looking at historic spending on mental health. 

Senate Bill 21-137, introduced by state Sen. Brittany Pettersen, a Democrat from Lakewood, would funnel tens of millions of dollars to state behavioral health programs. The funding would go to experimental programs, like $2.5 million from the marijuana tax cash fund for a pilot program to improve the social and emotional health of elementary school students, but it would also restore permanent funding for programs that were cut, like $1.6 million annually for the Recovery Support Services Grant Program, which provides services for people in recovery who also have a mental illness.

“Our behavioral health care system has been absolutely starved for decades in Colorado, and we have lost countless lives because of that, which unfortunately has only escalated during the pandemic,” Pettersen said.

If you need help, dial 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also reach the Colorado Crisis Services hotline at 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255 to speak with a trained counselor or professional. Counselors are also available at walk-in locations or online to chat.

Critics told Pettersen the Behavioral Health Recovery Act of 2021 was too big, that it should be split up into multiple bills, and that the funding went far beyond just restoring programs. 

“It’s going well beyond just restoring things,” said state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer of Brighton, according to Colorado Newsline.

Kirkmeyer questioned whether the bill’s millions of dollars in one-time and ongoing funding would be used to provide services in the most targeted manner possible.

Pettersen pushed back against those arguments. She said it’s a problem at the state Capitol.

“We don't tackle these huge issues year after year and do those comprehensive approaches that are necessary, some because of lack of resources, but also a lack of focus and passion and persistence to actually address some of the most pressing issues of our state,” Pettersen said. “You're not going to solve it with one bill and one headline. This takes, I've always said, five to 10 years of work to change a system that has failed so many.” 

SB-137 was referred to the Appropriations Committee after it was approved on a 4-2 vote by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee earlier this week. It was opposed by Kirkmeyer and fellow Republican state Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa.

Tackling substance abuse in Colorado

Pettersen has worked her entire career as a state legislator on bills and initiatives to aid behavioral health and substance abuse programs. For her, it’s personal

“Having had a mom who struggled with a substance use disorder, basically my entire life and living through that for 30 years and completely feeling hopeless and helpless. When she finally got the care that she needed, she was actually able to recover,” Pettersen said. “What has been really motivating for me is that we know what we need to do. We know what works, it's just that we never actually cared to prioritize it in this state. And that's unacceptable.”

Opioid deaths have been on the rise in Colorado and nationally for nearly two decades. In 2001, 23 people died in the state from a heroin overdose in Colorado. By 2016, that number spiked almost ten times to 228.

The number has continued to climb. Final data for 2020 is not yet available, but early analysis from the Colorado Health Institute found a 35 percent increase in overdose deaths from January to April 2020 as compared to the year prior.

In 2019, 1,062 people died from a drug overdose, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, an increase of 9 percent over 2018.

“I think that the awareness around, unfortunately, how bad it's gotten and how many families have been affected with loved ones who've gone through this, or are currently going through this or lives that have been lost unnecessarily has brought some political will, that hasn't been there in the past, but it is still a fight every single year for me to get these items to be prioritized,” Pettersen said. 

Mental health treated like physical health

Suicide rates are also climbing, especially in rural parts of the state. In 2019, 1,287 people died by suicide in Colorado, according to data from CDPHE. That’s a 9.5 percent increase from 2017.

Colorado has the fifth-highest suicide rate in the country, according to the CDC.

“We have a lot of work to do to make sure that people are able to seek the care that they need and that behavioral health care is treated just like physical health,” Pettersen said. “That's why we need this comprehensive bill, because this is a very complicated issue.”

Here are some of the provisions in the bill: 

  • The state’s medication-assisted treatment expansion pilot program would receive $3 million a year from the marijuana tax cash fund. MAT programs use opioid replacement therapies such as buprenorphine or methadone to reduce cravings and withdrawal in people with addictions.
  • Temporary housing assistance programs for people with substance use disorders would receive $4 million annually. The program would be housed in the Department of Human Services and paid for with the state’s general fund.
  • Colorado Crisis Services would receive a one-time $3.8 million dollars for the 2021-2022 fiscal year for housing assistance and treatment in rural parts of the state. The money would come from the state’s general fund.
  • CDPHE would receive $2 million annually for prevention and intervention, which includes collaborations with local health departments as well as data collection and analysis.
  • The Opiate Antagonist Bulk Purchase fund would receive $1.2 million in 2021-2022 fiscal year to purchase overdose reversal drugs, such as Narcan or naloxone, in bulk. The fund is set to expire in September unless it’s renewed.