Colorado could soon have a Behavioral Health Administration

Colorado’s Behavioral Health Task Force — created by Gov. Jared Polis in 2019 — is recommending that the Legislature create a centralized state Behavioral Health Administration (BHA). Sponsored by Reps. Mary Young and Rod Pelton, HB 21-1097 would create such an entity to increase the accessibility and affordability of Colorado’s behavioral health services. Senator Rhonda Fields is sponsoring the bill in the Senate.



Young, a participant of the task force, described the merits of the bill:

“[The BHA] is the next step on a path to significantly improving behavioral health care in Colorado by creating a system that has no wrong doors. A system without the barriers of long wait times, without individuals being denied access to the right care because they don’t have the right funding source.”

She said Colorado ranks 47th in the country for access to mental health care. Through her work on the task force, she heard instances of people dying because they weren’t able to access behavioral health care.

The task force consisted of three subcommittees who met for twelve months to evaluate the state’s behavioral health needs. Pelton said the amount of stakeholder input on the bill “blew him away.” 

The bill received abundant favorable testimony in its first hearing Tuesday, including from Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera. She denounced Colorado’s current “piecemealed” system, which she said doesn’t provide broad enough behavioral health support. According to her, the flawed system disproportionately impacts residents of rural areas and individuals from diverse backgrounds.

“As a member of the Colorado Behavioral Health Reform Executive Committee, I’m committed to building a system that truly puts patients first. That’s why I’m proud to support the creation of a new Behavioral Health Administration. BHA will be a single entity responsible for mental health and substance use care in our state. That means we can cut through the bureaucracy to create better outcomes for people, deliver whole-person care and make services and care more accessible and affordable for all Coloradans.”

Primavera emphasized that the BHA’s makeup will be racially diverse and focus on embedding equity into its work.

Michelle Barnes, executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services, was the chair of the Behavioral Health Task Force. She said she was shocked to discover the state ranked so low in its behavioral health services, despite spending a considerable amount in the area.

“This legislation is incredibly important to me and to the more than one million Coloradans who have behavioral health conditions … Our state spends more than one billion — $1.4 billion to be exact — each year on the behavioral health system, and yet national rankings show that Colorado is in the bottom quarter of states when evaluating access to and quality of behavioral health.”

She said the biggest issue the BHA should address is access to behavioral health care. According to her, the current system needs to be more streamlined to improve accessibility. She said consumers are currently burdened with finding available programs themselves, rather than being informed of their availability. 

Describing the current system as a “bureaucratic maze,” Barnes said the new administration will provide a crucial centralized entity that sets quality of care standards, coordinates state funding, monitors behavioral health outcomes and integrates mental health and substance use.

“If we continue to spend money on a behavioral health system that does not achieve the outcomes our citizens need, we will continue to experience the negative consequences.”

Kim Bimestefer, the executive director of the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing (HCPF), expressed her department’s support:

“The bottom line is all Coloradans who are suffering and need behavioral health supports often can’t find them, can’t afford them or can’t find a provider who is technically or culturally qualified to help them.”

She said the BHA would further Colorado’s work in integrating behavioral and physical health. The administration would build upon the state’s integration of the $65 million grant from the State Innovation Model, a large part of which was directed to this integration.

She explained how HCPF can be an “anchor” for this new administration:

“Our systems at HCPF can integrate eligibility, claim payment, operations, provider tracking, compliance, claim utilization, data reportage, insights — we can be, as an administrative agency, an anchor that helps bring and leverage operational efficiencies, insights, shared provider contracts and more to better serve the needs of Coloradans and our behavioral health providers.”

House Bill 21-1097 passed out of the House Public and Behavioral Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday.