Illinois lawmakers advance children’s behavioral health bill


Maddie McCarthy


The Illinois House Mental Health and Addiction Committee passed a bill on Monday that aims to strengthen the state’s behavioral health system in K-12 schools. Senate Bill 726, sponsored by Sen. Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago), was unanimously passed in the Senate on May 2.

SB 726 cosponsor Rep. Lindsey LaPointe (D-Chicago) discussed the bill at the committee hearing.

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“This is the second bill to come out of the Illinois Children’s Behavioral Health Transformation Initiative,” LaPointe said.

Dr. Dana Weiner, the chief children’s behavioral health officer of Illinois, leads the initiative, LaPointe said. It aims to analyze and change the delivery of behavioral health services in schools, and launched in March 2022. 

Lawmakers passed SB 724, another bill included in the initiative, in August 2023. LaPointe said the initiative will continue to bring forth legislation each spring as lawmakers continue to implement behavioral health system changes. 

There are four components to SB 726, LaPointe said. The first component relates to leading indicators.

“Current law requires the Department of Healthcare and Family Services (HFS) to identify what leading indicators are for an elevated behavioral health crisis risk for our kids in Illinois in partnership with our Medicaid Managed Care [Programs],” LaPointe said. 

“This bill gets more specific about what those data elements need to be that will be the leading indicators so we can better identify, analyze, and use those indicators to make sure our Medicaid Managed Care organizations (MCOs) are held accountable to try to identify kids earlier on before they reach crisis levels.”

SB 726 also requires the initiative to conduct readiness assessments in school districts. The assessments are meant to see what services and infrastructure districts still need to provide adequate behavioral health support. 

For example, a school might not have proper technology or referral networks in order to provide proper care for students who undergo screenings, LaPointe said. She added that the initiative has found that many school districts welcome readiness assessments because they want to be prepared for implementation.

“When it comes to these universal screenings in schools, certain things just have to be in place to make those assessments impactful,” LaPointe said.

SB 726 would require readiness assessments to be completed by Oct. 1.

Another aspect of the bill involves repealing the Wellness Checks in Schools Programs Act. The program is meant to provide annual mental health checks in schools, mostly for Medicaid-covered students. LaPointe said the bill would make wellness checks and screenings in schools a responsibility of the initiative.

“The wellness checks were supposed to be HFS partnering with school districts that have a high percentage of students enrolled in Medicaid and a high number of referrals to the Crisis and Referrals Entry Services (CARES) hotline … But we don’t want it to necessarily be just for kids on Medicaid. We want to zoom out and make sure our mental health work in schools has a more robust structure within the state government, and not just for kids who happen to be on Medicaid.”

— LaPointe

SB 726 would also move the Illinois Children’s Mental Health Partnership to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Rep. Dennis Tipsword Jr. (R-Metamora), raised concerns that the bill could ultimately place stigmas on students who are found to need help.

“Moving forward, if a child is found to be in need of some help, is that some sort of—I don’t want to use the word stigma but I’m going to—that follows that student as they grow?” Tipsword asked. “Is that something that is going to come back to those kids that were in this program? Since we are fishing with such a wide net, it’s not like we’re looking for just students who are maybe having issues. We’re kind of looking at every student.”

LaPointe said Tipsword’s question represents the initiative’s slow pace in mandating school districts to provide behavioral healthcare resources.

“In the process of the readiness assessment, these are the exact types of questions they’re going to get from school districts and be in conversation [with] to really ready them for implementation,” LaPointe said.

SB 726 will now head to the House floor for a vote.

Readers can learn more about behavioral healthcare during the “Efforts to Improve Behavioral Health Access” panel at the 2024 Illinois State of Reform Health Policy Conference, which will be held on May 29 at the Fairmont Chicago Millennium Park. LaPointe will speak on the “Legislators Discuss Health Policy” panel. Those interested can register here.

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