Colorado House behavioral health committee advances bill that aims to improve care for individuals with serious mental illness


Boram Kim


The Colorado House Public and Behavioral Health and Human Services Committee unanimously approved House Bill 1153 on Tuesday. The bill would direct the Department of Human Services (CDHS) to conduct a feasibility study to determine pathways to care for people with serious mental illness. It now heads to appropriations. 


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The work would be conducted in coordination with other state agencies, including the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing (HCPF), the Behavioral Health Administration (BHA), and the Department of Public Safety, with the aim of assisting these individuals with treatment and recovery before they end up in jail or on the streets. 

The committee heard testimony after testimony from the public, all in favor of HB 1153 and speaking to the needs of the mentally ill, including a mother whose son suffers from schizophrenia. 

“He is gravely disabled,” said community member Sandra Sharp of her son. “He is not able to manage his life skills without a higher level of care. Drew’s desire is to receive treatment in an inpatient mental health setting and everyone agrees that that is the most appropriate care.

He was in a selective college. Two weeks after his freshman year, he had his first psychotic break. He does not have a history of simply making bad decisions that have led him to bouncing between homelessness, crisis care, and jail. His brain is not working at a level that it needs to be working to have the insight and foresight to make the decisions necessary to live successfully. He needs treatment.”

Sharp’s son was arrested soon after being forcibly discharged from a community-based residential treatment facility and now faces the possibility of serving 26 years in the Department of Corrections. 

Sharp said the BHA’s strategic plan does not address the needs of those with severe mental illness, nor does it address the needs for competency treatment. 

“With the passage of this bill, there is a possibility that other individuals will not suffer as my son has suffered and as I have suffered, not being able to protect my son, not being able to get my son treatment,” Sharp told the committee. “When he was evicted from the [residential treatment facility], I begged them. I begged them [to] put a hold on my son. They said, ‘No, he is not a danger to himself or others and he is not gravely disabled.’ Four hours later [he was arrested].”

According to Mental Health America, Colorado ranks 21st in the nation in access to mental healthcare for adults but 48th in meeting mental health needs, with every three out of 10 Coloradans reporting their issues were not addressed. 

Healthier Colorado, a nonprofit health advocacy organization that advocates for policies to improve the health outcomes for all Coloradans, said the state’s access to behavioral care, healthcare, and supportive services such as housing was limited, especially for the most vulnerable residents. 

“Roughly half a million people in Colorado are not getting the mental healthcare they need with about 260,000 adults and children requiring treatment for the most severe mental illnesses,” said Stuart Jenkins, state policy manager at Healthier Colorado, on behalf of the bill. “The barriers to treatment only get worse if someone is experiencing housing insecurity and homelessness.

Research shows that 71% of people experiencing homelessness have a mental illness or post-traumatic stress [disorder]. Additionally, 59% are struggling with long-term substance use disorders. And all of this leads to an overuse of emergency services and public safety resources that is costly and inefficient, and most importantly, does not provide the holistic care that people need. Individuals who are struggling with serious behavioral health issues should not have to be hospitalized or arrested to get treatment or housing.”

Yumiko Dougherty, division director for strategic planning and engagement at CDHS, speaking to State of Reform about the BHA strategic plan, acknowledged access to services across the continuum is one of the highest concerns for the people of Colorado and the state has a long way to go in addressing service availability and equity. 

Dougherty said the department is working with HCPF and other state partners on trying to increase investment in prevention and social determinants of health, and also on broadening the array of partners that work beyond the traditional boundaries of behavioral health. 

“We started to do that in this plan with what we labeled the behavioral health ecosystem, which we actually consider much broader than just services,” Dougherty said. “And we are going to be putting out publicly in a very short amount of time, a much more detailed conception of what we consider a comprehensive continuum of services. So essentially, what we believe all people in this state should have access to across the lifespan, starting from people who are pregnant all the way through end of life—in terms of acuity, from prevention and primary prevention, all the way through the highest acuity needs and people in our state institutions and thinking about the diversity of services and being responsive to local and cultural needs.”