Q&A: Rep. Eliason has confidence in Cox’s health policy

Representative Steve Eliason has represented Utah’s 45th Legislative District since 2011, an area including Cottonwood Heights and Sandy City. A public accountant by trade, Eliason got involved in health policy out of concern for rising suicide rates in Utah — indicative of a larger trend of suicides in the Rocky Mountain states, which Eliason says is often called the “suicide belt.” In addition to his work on mental health, he was also a participant in Moderna’s clinical vaccine trials.

Eliason is a member of the House Health and Human Services Committee and the Revenue and Taxation Committee in the Utah Legislature, which just began its 2021 general session. In this Q&A, he speaks about suicide prevention, COVID-19 vaccines and the newly-appointed Cox Administration’s implications for health policy.

 

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Eli Kirshbaum: Can you talk about how you got started in the legislature, and in health policy specifically?

Rep. Steve Eliason: “I work in health care, but I didn’t start in health care. I got into public health legislation because some children died in my district from suicide at my own child’s school. I realized that there were things that could be done that weren’t being done.

That’s kind of how I got into this arena, and I’ve just become very passionate about it. The CDC, right before the end of the year, released national suicide level data, and for the first time since the turn of the century, the U.S. suicide rate fell in 2019 — it won’t be down in 2020, I’m told — for Utah, that marks the third year of our decline in our suicide rate. Seeing that we’re able to make a difference definitely encourages us to continue working on the issue.”

EK: Can you talk about legislation you sponsored in the past you are most proud of?

SE:HB 32, from 2020 — that one I’m very happy about. It does a bunch of things, it created a state-wide warmline for people with mental health issues. We were the second state in the nation to do that. It created, to my knowledge, the first [state-sponsored crisis intervention] app [for at-risk first responders] in the nation, called “Safe UT Frontline.” It’s for law enforcement, firefighters, first responders, dispatchers and all health care workers. “Safe UT” we launched a number of years ago for our K-12 and now K-20 students, and we get thousands of students using that app every month for crisis intervention. Then, we launched it for our national guard, and now we’ve launched it for these other professions that have high rates of suicide.

It [HB 32] also funded mobile crisis outreach teams in rural Utah. The biggest part of the bill is that it funded four crisis centers across the state that will reach almost 90% of the state’s population. So instead of taking someone with mental health issues to jail or the emergency room, they can go to the crisis receiving center, which is really a national best practice, where they can stay up to 24 hours, get a full psychiatric assessment, meet with a social worker, get a toxicology diagnosis, treatment plans, and safety plans. So HB 32 was definitely one of the most important bills I’ve run.

Another bill I ran created the Utah State Crisis Line, which is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, but it’s marketed as a state number. What that bill requires is we basically took 20 crisis lines around the state, consolidated them into one number and then helped promote the number, and we’ve seen a huge increase over the past few years in people calling the crisis line for help.

I ran a bill that created a syringe exchange program in Utah, that has been very successful. I nicknamed it “Hannah’s Bill” after a young woman made a call for help that went to voicemail.”

EK: Can you talk about legislation that you have prefiled or sponsored so far this session?

SE: “I’m running a bill to promote Zero Suicide. There are lots of ways to do suicide prevention, but far and above, one of the best ways to do it is in a health care setting. Statistics prove this time and time again. A large percentage of people who die by suicide saw a health care provider in the weeks or months prior to their death. We also know that the majority of people who die by suicide have eithe diagnoses or undiagnosed mental health issues. 

Zero suicide is basically a program for health care entities to screen for depression and suicide ideation amongst patients coming through their system, and if they identify an issue, send them down a clinical pathway that will address those issues. So you may have come in because you need to get your blood pressure medication refilled and they had you do a PHQ-9 — a patient health questionnaire with nine questions —  that indicates if you’re maybe suffering from depression. If you answer that positively, then they would screen you to see if you’re suicidal, and then get you into a clinical pathway to help treat those issues.

In Utah, our two largest health care entities, Intermountain Healthcare and the University of Utah, which is where I work, have implemented Zero Suicide as system-wide initiatives, and we’d like to see all health care entities get on board, particularly hospitals.

I’ve run a lot of firearm related legislation related to suicide prevention, and another bill I’m running this session will be [a bill where] you can put your name voluntarily on a no-buy list for firearms, so you basically voluntarily put yourself on the restricted list. So if you’re coming out of an in-patient psychiatric stay, as part of your safety planning they can say ‘Hey, if you want you can put your name on this list, and you won’t be able to buy a firearm.’ It’s not going to solve all of our problems, it’s just one piece of the puzzle.”

EK: What do you think is the most important thing the Utah Legislature needs to do this year to address COVID-19?

SE: “One thing I’m thinking about doing is — this kind of gets into the Executive Branch — but maybe reprioritizing how vaccines are being distributed. Our new governor has already kind of taken that bull by the horns, I’m not sure if the legislature needs to step in.

I think one of the biggest things we can do, since the vaccine rollout is in full swing in Utah, is look at what we need to be doing to help remediate the lost learning that has happened for our students during the course of the pandemic. Between having school canceled, having to go virtual, lacking some of that one-on-one, structural teachers, there’s going to be a big learning gap. So how do we try to mitigate and address that issue? We’re looking at funding summer school, funding extra tutoring, all sorts of different things to try to remediate some of the education issues.

Also, funding additional mental health issues going forward. An article in the New England journal of medicine said that approximately one in five people that have recovered from COVID, 90 days from recovery, have a diagnosable mental illness. So looking at expanding access to mental health is something that we need to do. It’s something that we need to do anyway, and have been doing, but need to do more of.”

EK: How will the new Cox Administration affect health policy in Utah, if at all? What do you expect to change, or remain the same?

SE: “I think we’re headed in a very positive direction. Several years ago, Spencer Cox asked me if I would co-chair the governor’s suicide prevention task force with him, which we did for several years, that helped launched a lot of initiatives. He has talked very publicly about his own challenges with mental health as a youth, so when you have a state leader that’s willing to talk about depression and suicide ideation and has been out there doing something about it, that’s the type of leadership we need in today’s world.

He has basically said his first 100 days are highly focused on COVID vaccinations and COVID relief, and he reprioritized who was getting the vaccines to focus on who was the most likely to die. So I think we’re headed in a very good direction from a health perspective with Governor Cox.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.