Utah interim committee approves draft legislation concerning behavioral health for 2023 session


Boram Kim


In its final hearing of the year on Wednesday, the Utah Health and Human Services Interim Committee (HHSIC) approved 2 pieces of draft legislation aimed at addressing the state’s ongoing behavioral health crisis. 


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The committee unanimously passed with favorable recommendations draft legislation around the state’s Behavioral Health Crisis Response and licensure review for mental health professions

The committee’s approval ensures that the bills will bypass a standing committee hearing during the upcoming general session. 

Sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason (R- Sandy) and put forth by the Utah Behavioral Health Crisis Response Commission, the crisis response bill would build out Utah’s crisis support network, where mobile teams respond to local law enforcement with virtual connection to a licensed clinical social worker to manage an individual’s episode and refer them to a nearby crisis receiving center, if necessary. 

“When we say the crisis continuum, that’s someone to call, someone to respond, and a safe place to go in a crisis,” Eliason said. “The latter 2 components of that is where this bill is focused.”

There are currently 5 crisis receiving centers in Utah, located in Salt Lake, Davis, Weaver, and Washington counties, that are open or being developed. 

The proposed legislation would create up to an additional 5 mobile response teams, building an additional crisis receiving center in a rural area with the most need, and virtual crisis outreach program for areas of the state where access to mental healthcare is lacking.

Officials from the Utah Behavioral Healthcare Committee and Utah Sheriff’s Association testified in support of the bill, saying the state’s crisis response was working and should be expanded upon. 

In Utah County, mobile crisis outreach served 680 individuals between September 2021 and September 2022 with 63% resolving crises at home and 136 being referred to a receiving center. Receiving centers admitted 1,688 individuals over the same period with 74% being discharged and returning home after 24 hours. 

“It’s estimated on average that 200 to 250 people a day in Utah go to an emergency department and emergency room for a mental health crisis,” Eliason said. “Those are our only option. Crisis receiving centers and mobile teams are meant to keep people out of emergency rooms and divert people from jail. It’s a key component of criminal justice reform that I think all sides agree on. We’ve seen great success with what we’re doing. This bill will simply further build out our system for components of the state where the demand is very high or where they’ve not had access to some of those resources.”

The Office of Professional Licensure presented another piece of legislation related to Governor Spencer Cox’s first executive order in 2021, that called for his executive agencies to conduct a review of all the professional licenses in Utah. 

The licensure review bill would authorize the office to conduct an audit of requirements and scope of practice for all current mental health professions and present a report on its findings and policy recommendations to legislators.

The federal government has designated every county in Utah as a Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA), which means the entire state has a shortage of mental healthcare providers to adequately serve its population. 

“In the case of mental health, we have a huge labor shortage,” said Margaret Busse, Executive Director of the Utah Department of Commerce. “So that’s the kind of thing we’ll be looking at, scope of practice. Should we be creating other types of lower-level licenses perhaps that allow people to get in at a lower level and more people to access that profession [and] those professional services? So those are the types of things that we’ll be looking at but we don’t want to be compromising public safety in any of this.”

In addition to these 2 behavioral health bills, HHSIC unanimously passed all 11 bills on its final day agenda with the exception of draft legislation around recalibrating the state’s determination of local public health department funding, which received 1 dissenting vote. 

In business unrelated to draft legislation, HHSIC heard a presentation made by fellow committee member Rep. Marsha Judkins regarding the growing surplus of funds for Medicaid expansion. 

Utahns voted to expand Medicaid in 2018 through a ballot initiative, which excised a state sales tax to fund the expansion. The state has been seeing a surplus of $50 million each year from the tax levy and appropriated federal and general funds. The expansion fund currently stands at more than $170 million and is expected to grow to $250 million by next year.

Judkins testified that her team is developing draft legislation to present to the commission next year that would pursue a Medicaid waiver to provide mental health coverage for adults. 

“The fact that we have huge barriers and gaps in services is reflected in the money that we spend on hospital stays for these individuals, in the criminal justice system, [and] homelessness,” Judkins said. “We really do need to look at this and address it in any way that we can.”