‘Massive, unprecedented’ stakeholder input going into Colorado’s Behavioral Health Administration


Eli Kirshbaum


The stakeholder input being incorporated into Colorado’s in-development Behavioral Health Administration (BHA) is “massive” and “unprecedented,” according to Michelle Barnes, executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS). Under HB 21-1097 — signed in April by Gov. Jared Polis — Barnes’ department is responsible for implementing the BHA.

Barnes described the rigorous stakeholder engagement process during the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing (HCPF)’s Summer Health Cabinet Summit last week.


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“Over the last two years, I personally listened to the stories of hundreds of Coloradans and what they wanted to share about their experience with our behavioral health systems.”

Under the direction of Gov. Polis, Barnes has chaired the state’s Behavioral Health Task Force for the past couple of years, which has met with hundreds of stakeholders to develop a plan to reform Colorado’s “fragmented” behavioral health system. The task force released a blueprint in Sept. of 2020 that, among other recommendations, called for the creation of a BHA.

In partnership with Health Management Associates (HMA), CDHS has conducted “robust engagement” with leaders of state agencies, subject matter experts, and other key stakeholders. Barnes said the largest block they consulted were community mental health and behavioral health providers. 

“We found that the problem wasn’t the coordination of programs, but rather the system’s approach to ensuring gaps in the system are addressed and that families can navigate it.”

Robert Werthwein, director of the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health (OBH), went into further detail about stakeholder involvement in a previous interview with State of Reform.

Barnes said there are “many miles to go” before the BHA is up and running and emphasized the complexity of integrating Colorado’s numerous behavioral health programs. HB 21-1097 requires the BHA to be operational by 2024.

“No one would design the system we have if they were trying to figure out a good behavioral health system. So what we’re trying to do is set up a system that connects all the amazing programs we have going.”

Barnes said the BHA will be separate from the already existing Office of Behavioral Health (OBH). While the OBH focuses on actual programs, the BHA will provide system oversight and ensure accountability in the state’s behavioral health delivery.

“This is not the agency that runs programs, but rather the agency that sets the stage and checks accountability. So we are not merging everything that looks like behavioral health into one agency. We’re setting up a governing body that conducts oversight and standards to coordinate with the hundreds of programs in place throughout the state…”

The BHA commissioner — to be selected by Gov. Polis and a member of his cabinet — will sit on the governor’s cabinet, which Barnes called a “really important pivot” because not a lot of states have behavioral health leaders in the governor’s cabinet.

The BHA will be housed within CDHS at least until Nov. 2024, when the department can decide whether or not the BHA should be moved to a different department.